Spotlight on Monk Seals: Summer 2017

A peek at the secret lives of seals, recognizing Species in the Spotlight Heroes, a celebrity pup in Waikīkī, and what's new in monk seal science

Waikīkī Pup becomes Social Media Celebrity

In late June 2017, a 17-year-old female monk seal (RH58) nicknamed "Rocky" gave birth to her 10th pup on the popular Kaimana Beach in the Waikīkī area. This was the first documented monk seal birth in Waikīkī, as well as Rocky's first pup to be born on O?ahu — all her previous pups were born at remote beaches on Kaua?i. The high volume of people in this area presented a challenging management situation, as NOAA Fisheries and partners strive to keep both seals and humans safe and keep seal disturbance to a minimum.

Although Waikīkī may not be an ideal place for a pupping event, it has presented an opportunity to educate many people about monk seals and responsible wildlife viewing. At all hours of the day, beach goers crowded around the designated seal resting area (SRA) to observe the mom-pup interactions. In a significant test to our growing network of partners, dedicated personnel from Hawai‘i Marine Animal Response (HMAR) and Ocean Safety were on-site daily to educate the public about the seals, how to avoid human-seal interactions, and to keep an eye on swimmers that may come too close to the protective mom.

In another first, local news outlet Honolulu Civil Beat began broadcasting live, round-the-clock footage of Rocky and her pup, nicknamed "Kaimana," as well as live "pupdates" with NOAA Fisheries researchers and managers. This has been a powerful outreach tool to spread awareness to dedicated seal-cam watchers everywhere across the islands and around the world! As Kaimana’s fame continues, NOAA is thankful for the dedication and hard work of our partners and for the beach goers and cam-viewers that have embraced this unique situation!

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Species in the Spotlight Heroes: Ke Kai Ola

Created by NOAA Fisheries, the Species in the Spotlight campaign that's behind this newsletter is rooted in the concept that conservation is a team sport. Building, strengthening, and leveraging partnerships with other government agencies, non-profit organizations, universities, and local communities is critical to achieving conservation goals, particularly for highly endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal.

Since opening in 2014, The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola facility has played a critical role in Hawaiian monk seal recovery. In just a few short years, Ke Kai Ola has rehabilitated over 20 malnourished seals — more than 1 percent of the total population! These seals, which were returned to their homes, had virtually no chance of survival without the facility's help. The Ke Kai Ola staff is dedicated to monk seal conservation, incredibly knowledgeable, and exemplifies the collaborative spirit that the Species in the Spotlight initiative seeks to foster and highlight. As part of a national effort to recognize Species in the Spotlight Heroes, as well as to help celebrate Year of the Monk Seal, NOAA Fisheries proudly presented TMMC with a "Monk Seal Hero Award" on July 21, 2017 for their work with endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

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Tools for Recovery

In our last issue, intern Alexa Gonzalez described the challenges, tools, and tricks involved in de-hooking monk seals. Continuing our series on the tools and technologies used in monk seal recovery and response, intern Margaret Morrison describes how getting a glimpse of the world from a seal’s perspective helps NOAA Fisheries address conservation challenges.

The Secret Lives of Hawaiian Monk Seals

by Margaret Morrison

Have you ever wondered what the world looks like from a seal's perspective? Scientists from the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) did, and thanks to the Crittercam they can now document the foraging behavior of Hawaiian monk seals in the wild.

Developed by National Geographic, the Crittercam is a research tool designed to be worn by wild animals. The cameras record not only video and audio, but also GPS information, such as location, dive depth and time, and acceleration. This tool has been particularly useful for gaining more insight into the foraging behavior of Hawaiian monk seals in both the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) and main Hawaiian Islands (MHI).

There are about 300 monk seals in the MHI, and this growing seal population has raised many concerns among community members regarding seal impact on fisheries. Various myths and misconceptions were prevalent in the MHI, such as seals eating 600 pounds of fish a day and destroying local reefs, causing some community members to develop animosity towards the seals.

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In 2013, the NOAA research team deployed a number of Crittercams on healthy males in the MHI. They teamed up with local schools to go through the hundreds of hours of footage with the ultimate goal of combating these misconceptions. The students received the data directly from the cameras with the hope that this transparency would help mitigate any distrust among community members regarding the results of the study. This partnership not only allowed for the involvement of local keiki, but also let individuals see for themselves the true nature and behavior of monk seals.

The results from this study showed that rather than eating 600 pounds of fish a day, a monk seal passes up 600 fish for every fish it actually eats. Additionally, the footage showed that seals are rather gentle around the reef and are not, in fact, destroying local ecosystems. While no research has yet measured the changes in community perception since the study, Charles Littnan, the lead monk seal scientist at NOAA Fisheries, says that he has noticed a marked change in the dialogue surrounding monk seals and an increase in community engagement. "[The Crittercam] is one of the most powerful tools to get people to care about and understand monk seals," he says.

To provide a more comprehensive lens into monk seal foraging patterns, future research involving Crittercams and other similar tools aims to expand the pool of subjects and environments studied. A new, more compact and advanced camera system will allow for a broader group of animals to be studied while collecting more valuable data, including footage of seals foraging at night. Additionally, the researchers would like to use the cameras to link foraging behavior to environmental variability, such as changes due to El Niño, to better understand and predict the impact of climate change on Hawaiian monk seals. Cameras provide an invaluable lens into the life of monk seals and will continue to help better shape recovery plans for this critically endangered species.

Monk Seal Science Happenings

2017 Vaccinations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Over the course of the last year, we've been providing updates in these newsletters on our efforts to vaccinate monk seals against morbillivirus, a disease in the same family of viruses as measles and distemper. This virus has caused large mortality events (sudden die-offs) in other marine mammal populations, though it has not yet been detected in Hawaiian monk seals. Because a disease outbreak could be devastating to the small population of Hawaiian monk seals, NOAA’s HMSRP is proactively vaccinating against it. In 2017, the HMSRP launched the first monk seal morbillivirus vaccination efforts across the NWHI. The goal for the summer was simple — vaccinate as many seals as possible to protect the NWHI populations from morbillivirus.

However, implementing this goal was anything but simple! Field teams had to work quickly to vaccinate seals within the summer field camp season and before vaccines expired. And we needed to overcome many logistical challenges, such as ensuring that vaccines could be properly refrigerated in these remote camps. Previous research using computer simulations of disease outbreaks helped us to estimate how many seals needed to be vaccinated at each site to achieve "herd immunity" (that is, enough of the population is vaccinated that the disease is prevented from spreading through it). While this number had been attainable on O‘ahu, the larger populations at NWHI sites meant that many more seals needed to be vaccinated to fully protect the seal population. For example, we would have to vaccinate 212 of Laysan’s 244 seals just to have an 80% chance of stopping disease spread through this population (see the figure below). So, we knew that this first year of vaccination effort would just be a step in that direction.

We vaccinated seals either by hand while handling them for other activities (such as tagging) or, more commonly, with a spring-loaded pole syringe (Dan-Inject Jab Stick). Each seal required two doses of vaccine — an initial dose and a booster, delivered 3–5 weeks apart. In addition to tracking vaccines administered, field biologists also carefully monitored the seals’ reaction to the vaccination (both physical and behavioral responses). Our field teams documented no physical or behavioral complications post-vaccinations, either immediately following vaccination or during subsequent sightings of vaccinated seals.

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A total of 490 seals received at least an initial vaccination, starting with the first seal vaccinated on Midway on April 16, 2017 and culminating with the first phase of vaccination efforts on July 28, 2017. Of these seals, 74% (351 seals) also received a booster within the designated 21–37-day window. Of the un-boosted seals, most are at French Frigate Shoals and will receive their boosts between August and October (since they have a longer season, this camp was able to get a delivery of fresh vaccines with a longer shelf life). These vaccination efforts got some subpopulations very close to herd immunity coverage, but continued efforts will be required to get all populations to the highest level of protection. The vaccination efforts in the NWHI in the summer of 2017 have put us one step closer to protecting Hawaiian monk seals from potential outbreaks of morbillivirus. This will be an on-going effort with future years building on this initial success.


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About NOAA's Species in the Spotlight

The goal of the Species in the Spotlight initiative is to marshal resources and partnerships focused on saving eight priority threatened and endangered species. Check out the Species in the Spotlight: Hawaiian Monk Seal page.

Did You Know...?

NOAA Fisheries is featuring a Monk Seal of the Month every month this year as part of the Year of the Monk Seal Celebration. Visit our website to learn the fascinating life stories of individual seals. Check out our August feature on the first monk seal to undergo hook removal surgery.

Hawaiian monk seal on the beach. Hawaiian monk seal, TT40, sleeping on the beach.

Monk Seal Pupdate

Although monk seals can pup any time of year, most pups are born in spring and summer. So far this year, at least 156 monk seal pups were born in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and 31 pups were born in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaiian monk seal on the beach. Pup PK3, born on Kauai on June 18 to mom RO28, pictured shortly after birth and after nursing for several weeks. Photo credit J. Thomton, NMFS Permit 18786

Celebrating World Oceans Day

As part of our ongoing Year of the Monk Seal celebration, NOAA partnered with Ko Olina Resorts on a World Ocean’s Day event that took place on June 10 at Ko Olina, adjacent to Lagoon 4. The event was also an opportunity to recognize the conclusion of the Worldwide Voyage of Hokule‘a and Hikianali‘a, and celebrate the impending return of the voyaging canoes to Hawai‘i.

The celebration included ocean education and sustainability activities organized by many of our partners, including Sustainable Coastlines, Hawai‘i Marine Animal Response, Sea Life Park, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, The Marine Mammal Center, and more. There was live entertainment, including music and hula performances, food booths, and a sunset screening of the Disney film Moana! The event was a great success and truly a fun way to celebrate Hawai‘i’s ocean creatures. For a short video of event highlights, please click here.

Aerial view of attendees at World Oceans Day. Aerial view of attendees on the grass at World Oceans Day at the Ko Olina Resorts.

Hawaiian monk seal on the beach. Petunia (RZ20) at Kure Atoll. NMFS permit 18786.

Upcoming Events

Year of the Monk Seal Keiki Day at Sea Life Park disclaimer external link
Sunday September 3, 2017
10am – 2pm

Hawaiian Monk Seal Photo Contest
Ends September 15, 2017

In celebration of the Year of the Monk Seal, participate in our photo contest to showcase your photo of Hawaiian monk seals in a photographic calendar, which will be available for 2018!

An Evening with Monk Seals disclaimer external link hosted by NOAA Fisheries, Waikīkī Aquarium, and Lanikai Brewing Company
Saturday September 23, 2017
5:30pm – 8:30pm

It’s Monk Seal Month at Hanauma Bay
Every Thursday from 6:30 – 7:30pm

For a list of topics, visit the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant Community Event page disclaimer external link.

Need more information or have an idea for a Year of the Monk Seal activity? Let us know!

For more information on this effort, visit the Species in the Spotlight page or email angela.amlin@noaa.gov, Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Coordinator or charles.littnan@noaa.gov, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program