NOAA Fisheries Removes Aggressive Monk Seal KE18 from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI)

Timeline
2010 and Spring/Summer 2011
KE18 observed injuring newly weaned pups and juvenile seals on Kure Atoll.
2011
In response to the high frequency and severity of male aggression related injuries and mortality at Kure Atoll in 2011, NOAA Fisheries determined intervention was necessary.

Through detailed observation and documentation of individual male seals involved in aggressive attacks on other seals in 2010-2011, KE18 and one other seal became candidates for removal from the NWHI population. Ultimately it was decided only KE18 was a candidate for removal.
July 30, 2011
NOAA Fisheries departed on R/V Oscar Elton Sette to retrieve field camp personnel and a small team of NOAA Fisheries staff spent seven days on Kure Atoll searching for KE18. Although spotted three times, KE18 never presented himself in a place where it was safe to capture and euthanize him.
January 9, 2012
KE18 was spotted at Midway Atoll and marked for easy identification.
January 28, 2012
A NOAA Fisheries team, including a veterinarian, left for Midway on a USFWS Flight.
January 29, 2012
NOAA Fisheries staff located and successfully captured KE18, with assistance from USFWS, and transported the seal to Oahu via a U.S. Coast Guard medevac flight.
January 30, 2012
KE18 is currently under quarantine and resting comfortably in a temporary holding pool at the Waikiki Aquarium.
Late February or early March 2012
KE18 is tentatively scheduled to be transported to Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

In 2010 and 2011 NOAA Fisheries staff began to observe a nine-year old monk seal, KE18, attacking newly weaned and juvenile seals at Kure Atoll in the NWHI; causing injuries including lacerations, scratches and puncture wounds on this critical component of the monk seal population . KE18 seriously injured 10 of the 13 pups and an additional three juveniles during the 2010 and 2011 field camps on Kure Atoll. When KE18 transited to Midway Atoll there were two unexplained deaths during his time there.

Once the frequency and severity of injuries was noted, NOAA Fisheries staff engaged in non-lethal actions designed to interrupt KE18's attacks by making noises, closely approaching him, etc). When these interventions did not change KE18's behavior, NOAA conducted a rigorous decision process and determined that removal of KE18 from the NWHI was necessary. Late in the summer of 2011 NOAA explored the options available for removal of KE18 as permitted by its Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act permits and concluded that lethal removal was the only available option at that time.

A team of NOAA Fisheries researchers, scientists and a veterinarian spent seven days at Kure in early August 2011 searching for KE18, but although the seal was spotted three times, he never presented himself in a place that would allow the team to safely capture and humanely euthanize him.

In January 2012 KE18 was spotted at Midway Atoll and marked with a non-toxic dye making him easily identifiable. On January 29, KE18 was captured at Midway Atoll by a small team of NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff and transported to Honolulu by a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 plane that was coincidentally at Midway on a rescue mission for an injured commercial seaman. KE18 arrived on Oahu on January 30 and was transported to a holding pool at the Waikiki Aquarium where he is temporarily being held.

  • Seal Aggression 01

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    KE18 has a history of being aggressive with newly weaned and juvenile pups.

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  • Seal Aggression 03

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    Although aversive conditioning was used to try and deter KE18 from being aggressive, these attempts were futile.

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  • Injured juvenile seal

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    KE18's attacks on young seals have been severe, even fatal.

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  • KE18 on Coast Guard plane

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    After being successfully captured on Midway Atoll, KE18 was transferred to Hawaii on a Coast Guard C-130 medivac flight.

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  • KE18's arrival on Oahu

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    KE18 arrives safely on Oahu.

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  • KE18 at the Waikiki Aquarium

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    KE18 acclimates to his surroundings at the Waikiki Aquarium.

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  • KE18 at the Waikiki Aquarium

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  • KE18 at the Waikiki Aquarium

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    KE18 has begun to eat while at the Waikiki Aquarium.

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  • KE18 at the Waikiki Aquarium

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    KE18 is currently being monitored around the clock by NOAA Fisheries and Waikiki Aquarium staff.

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Wildlife Management

It was imperative that NOAA Fisheries remove KE18 from the NWHI to increase pup and juvenile survival on Kure and Midway Atolls. Poor pup and juvenile survival is the key problem causing the decline of the Hawaiian monk seal population by 4% annually.

Humane euthanasia is an accepted wildlife management tool; sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice one animal for the good of the population. In this case, the harm KE18 was causing by injuring and killing young female newly weaned and juvenile seals far outweighed any benefit to leaving him in the population.

Although euthanasia of a seal in the NWHI is a rare event, (one seal has been euthanized in about 30 years of operation). Direct intervention to assist juvenile survival is an important recovery tool. A recent report by NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) – 2011 Hawaiian monk seal population estimates and a summary of the benefits of 15 years of interventions on the monk seal population) emphasizes that intervention (ranging from untangling from marine debris to hazing of sharks) has shown to have a significantly positive impact on the Hawaiian monk seal population.

Click here to view a summary of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Report
  • In the current population, 18-23% of the seals alive today directly benefited from interventions or are children or grandchildren of females that benefited.
  • Despite the overall decline of the population, there are up to 30% more seals than there would have been without NOAA Fisheries' and their partners' efforts.

NOAA Fisheries has been working non-stop to explore all available options, and has identified a tentative plan for KE18's future. Due to a series of fortuitous events, options available for KE18's future may allow him to contribute valuable data to research that may greatly aid in the conservation and recovery of the species. Barring any unforeseen changes, KE18 will be transported to Long Marine Laboratory at UCSC; the same facility where the monk seal KP2 participated in non-invasive research. The seal will be central to critical and non-invasive energetics, physiology and health and disease studies which will help scientists understand the causes of the monk seal population decline and lead to the development of tools to help managers in the recovery of the species. After research is completed (approximately 18 to 24 months), KE18 is expected to return to Hawaii to live out the rest of his days in a public facility where he will help educate the public about the plight of monk seals and the hope for their recovery.

NOAA Fisheries is diligently working on getting agreements with its partners executed and permitted under the ESA and MMPA, and expect to have the paperwork completed soon. If all goes according to plan, KE18 will leave for UCSC in late February or early March 2012. Once again, let us emphasize that this plan is the best case scenario, but can be altered by events that may present themselves in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why did you have to remove KE18 from his natural environment?

It was imperative that NOAA remove KE18 from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to increase pup and juvenile survival on Kure and Midway Atolls. KE18 cannot be returned to the wild because of the continued threat he poses to pups and juveniles. The harm KE18 was causing by injuring and killing newly weaned and juvenile females far outweighed any benefit to leaving him in the population.

Q: What caused KE18 to behave this way?

NOAA doesn't really have an answer at this time; but because KE18 is a subdominant male, it is likely that he is not gaining access to females during the breeding season and is redirecting his aggression towards vulnerable seals in the population.

Q: In the summer of 2011 NOAA wanted to euthanize KE18, what changed?

Back then, NOAA had three options for removing aggressive male monk seals under ESA/MMPA Permit 10137–06: 1) translocation, 2) permanent captivity, and 3) lethal removal by humane euthanasia. Translocation was ruled out because moving KE18 to any location within the Hawaiian archipelago would simply put other young seals at risk. Captivity was not an option because it was determined that none of the four facilities permitted to maintain Hawaiian monk seals in captivity could accommodate an adult male at that time. Euthanasia remained the only viable option. When KE18 was spotted in December 2011, NOAA once again examined options and due to a fortuitous set of events was able to pursue a non–lethal option when a permitted facility had an open spot and agreed to take him.

Q: How does NOAA justify killing an endangered species?

Humane euthanasia is an accepted wildlife management tool and sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice one animal for the good of the population. In this case, the harm KE18 was causing by injuring and killing newly weaned and juvenile females far outweigh any benefit to leaving him in the population.

Q: Why is it necessary to intervene; why not let nature take its course?

It will be at least another five years before KE18 becomes a dominant male. There is no indication his aggressive behavior will diminish before then or even after that point. In that intervening time, his behavior could result in the deaths of numerous seals including several females. Leaving nature to take its course could unnecessarily make the population decline worse.

Q: What will happen to KE18 now?

NOAA is working non-stop to explore all available options and has identified a tentative plan for KE18's future. Barring any unforeseen changes, KE18 will be transported to Long Marine Laboratory at University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC); the same facility where KP2 (Hoailona) participated in non–invasive research. After research is completed (approximately 18 to 24 months) he will return to Hawaii to live out the rest of his days in a public facility where he will help educate the public about the plight of monk seals and the hope for their recovery. NOAA is diligently working on getting agreements executed and permitted, and hopefully will have the paperwork completed soon. If all goes according to plan, KE18 will leave for UCSC in late February or early March 2012.

Q: What kind of research will KE18 participate in at UCSC Long Marine Laboratory?

He will participate in critical and non–invasive energetic, physiology, and health and disease studies which will help scientists understand the causes of the monk seal population decline and lead to the development of tools to help managers.

Q: What will happen to KE18 once the research at UCSC is over?

Hopefully he can return to Hawaii to a permanent home.

Q: How will NOAA get KE18 to UCSC and back?

NOAA is working with our long time partner the U.S. Coast Guard to provide transportation.

Q: What happens if NOAA cannot find a permanent home for him once research is over at UCSC?

NOAA will work relentlessly to find a home; however if none can be found wildlife management tools such as humane euthanasia may have to be used.

Q: Does NOAA have to send him away? Why can't he stay in Hawaii?

At this time none of the permitted facilities can take KE18; however it is hoped that while he is at UCSC these facilities will have time to develop and construct a holding pool sufficient to permanently house KE18.

Q: Why can't KE18 be moved to another location so he can remain in the wild?

Moving KE18 anywhere within the Hawaiian Archipelago will put the pups in that new location at risk to his aggressive behavior.

Q: Why can't KE18 be rehabilitated or trained not to be aggressive, so he can be released into the wild?

An animal can and likely will revert to more natural behaviors if training is not maintained. So even if KE18 could be trained to “behave” there would be nothing in the wild to reinforce that good behavior. Releasing him into the wild would return him to a situation where he would still be a subdominant male and he may revert to his aggressive behavior. This is not a scenario with a high likelihood of success and the risk to young seals is too great.

Q: There are more seals in the main Hawaiian Islands, do we need to be afraid they'll turn aggressive to people?

“Wild” monk seals almost never attack or seek interactions with humans. There have been only a few known cases of aggressive interactions between seals and people. These have occurred either when a person has gotten too close to a mother protecting her pup or when a seal has become conditioned to associate humans with food or socialization and later becomes too “rough” with unsuspecting swimmers or divers. With effective outreach and education, both of these situations can be avoided. As a rule, it is not a good idea to undertake activities that may be interpreted as a threat to a mother or her young of most wild species. Following basic viewing guidelines and guidelines for fishers will prevent or greatly reduce public safety risks associated with the occurrence of conditioned or habituated seals.

For more information on Hawaiian Monk Seals...