By Jamie Schmid
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered marine animals in the world, yet few know about this extraordinary creature. Found only in Hawaii, the monk seal does not live in the frigid Artic waters most associate with seals.
Hawaiian monk seals weigh between 375 and 450 pounds, and can grow to a length of 7 feet long. A grey and silver coat adorns their back, while their underside is a cream colored shade. Hawaiian monk seals can live to 30 years old, and eat crustaceans and fish from coral reefs.
Monk seals live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They spend about two-thirds of their time in the water foraging in the coral for food, and the other one-third of their time lying out on sand, coral, or volcanic rock. The tropical climate, isolated location and bountiful coral reefs once allowed the seals to thrive.
However, after almost being hunted to extinction in the mid-1950s, the Hawaiian monk seal was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. Yet, even after the listing, their numbers have continued to decline. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since 2001 the abundance of Hawaiian monk seals has declined by about 4.5 percent per year.
There are many factors that contribute to the seal’s continuing decline, making their recovery all the more difficult:
Food supply– Hawaiian monk seals compete for food with other predators around the Northwestern Islands. This competition, combined with ecosystem deterioration due to global warming, is causing many seals to starve.
Habitat loss– Global climate change is causing beach erosion and sea level rise that is destroying the seal’s habitat.
Male monk seals– Male monk seals show quite aggressive behavior towards female and young monk seals. This behavior can lead to injury or death among many of the breeding females.
Sickness– The lack of genetic diversity causes diseases to spread swiftly throughout the monk seals.
Humans– Hawaiian monk seals are one of many animals declining due to by-catch. Additionally, human disturbances on beaches where the females breed is contributing to their population decline.
According to the Marine Mammal Center, there are less than 1,100 seals left in existence. Only one out of five baby monk seals will make it to adulthood.
However, there is some good news. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 121 monk seals were born in 2014. This represents an almost 10 percent increase in their population. Recently, Ke Kai Ola, a Hawaiian Monk Seal hospital, opened in Hawaii. The hospital will help with the difficult births of baby monk seals, and will help rehabilitate injured seals.
With these new efforts, hopefully the Hawaiian monk seal will remain alive and well as the state mammal of Hawaii!