Spotlight on Monk Seals: February - April 2017

Return to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, students create life-sized monk seal, and de-hooking seals demysitifed

Gearing Up for the Northwesterns

Preparations are underway for the 2017 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) Hawaiian monk seal field season. Each year, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program establishes Assessment and Recovery Camps (ARCs) at five remote locations within the the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument that are only accessible by ship: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. The objectives of these field camps are to assess the population, identify factors threatening monk seal recovery, and perform recovery activities, such as translocating weaned pups away from predatory sharks, reuniting mothers and pups, disentangling seals, removing dangerous marine debris, and much more.

This year, the research cruise to deploy the camps is scheduled to depart Honolulu on May 8. In the field, each camp consists of 2Ė4 people living in isolated, rustic conditions: staying in tents at most sites, bathing in the ocean, and surviving with no internet or cell phone coverage and limited satellite phone communication. Because the camps aren't resupplied or visited by the outside world, researchers must pack enough food, water, and field and personal supplies to last for 4Ė5 months! What's more, the teams take the utmost care during packing to inspect, freeze, and/or fumigate all gear according to strict quarantine procedures to prevent inadvertently introducting pests or invasive species into the fragile NWHI ecosystem.

New and returning field staff are currently testing and packing field gear, going over lists to make sure everything they need is accounted for, and undergoing extensive training in all aspects of data collection, animal handling, communications, emergency procedures, wilderness first aid, small boat handling, and other skills to prepare them for a successful season.

You can follow the research cruise and updates at each camp via our new story map.

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A room full of buckets that contain field gear.
NOAA staff on small boats transporting buckets.

Much of the gear transported to the NWHI is transported in buckets. Small boats take the buckets from the large NOAA vessels to the island or atoll where the crew will be based, and a "bucket brigade" is formed to get all of the gear on-island. Photos contributed by T. Johanos-Kam

Monk Seal Finds a Home at Līhu‘e Airport

Students from Hale ‘Ōpio Kaua‘i spent three months creating a 7-foot long Hawaiian monk seal out of chicken wire and paper mâché. Accompanying the display is text that reads, in part: "Over 50 ‘ōpio (youth) from around the island participated in this project. Meeting with marine experts, they furthered their knowledge and understanding of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal and its importance, environmentally and culturally."

The monk seal's current home is a display at the Līhu‘e Airport, alongside materials that encourage people to respect and protect Hawai‘i's native seal. The students and seal even received coverage in an article in The Garden Island newspaper, which noted the relevancy of the display given 2017 is the Year of the Monk Seal. Hats off to these students for their creativity and support of monk seal conservation, as well as to the adults that guided them through the process, including Mimi Olry, Kaua‘i Marine Mammal Response Field Coordinator, and Phyllis Hopeck, Kaua‘i Monk Seal Conservation Hui volunteer.

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Hawaiian monk seal information display.
Kaua‘i Monk Seal Conservation Hui volunteer with monk seal model.

Līhu‘e Airport display, The Garden Island article, and Kaua‘i Monk Seal Conservation Hui volunteer, Phyllis Hopeck. Photos courtesy of P. Hopeck.

Tools for Recovery

In the next couple newsletters, we'll be featuring different tools and technologies used in monk seal recovery and response. We have a great group of young scientists volunteering at our NOAA offices who have each researched one of these tools/technologies and put together an article. In this issue, Alexa Gonzalez takes on the tricky business of de-hooking monk seals.

De-hooking Demystified, by Alexa Gonzalez

As of 1976, Hawaiian monk seals have been classified under the Endangered Species Act as one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. In the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI), the leading cause of population decline is anthropogenic influences, including habitat change, entanglements in marine debris, and interactions with fishing gear. The majority of fisheries interactions are hookings which result from monk seals eating fish or other bait off of fishing lines. Fortunately, when hookings are reported, NOAA staff and partners mount a response to remove the hook from the seal. With every hooked seal response, they face a wide variety of obstacles and have been working to enhance their assessments to maximize their success.

Every hooked monk seal presents a unique situation that responders must evaluate before acting. Responders take into account the physical size and location of the seal, as well as the hook type, size, and location in the sealís body. After a reported hooked seal is located, responders must evaluate the seal's surrounding environment. If the seal is in a rocky environment thatís not easily accessible, it can be unsafe for responders and the seal to attempt a capture and they may have to wait for the seal to relocate before proceeding. A preferable area to approach a seal would be a sandy, open environment. The size of the seal can also pose tricky circumstances for the responders because the mouths of pup and juvenile seals are much smaller than those of adults. If a small seal is hooked inside its mouth, it may be difficult for responders to access the hook within the minimal space inside the seal's mouth.

Along with the size and whereabouts of the seal, the type and location of the hook can also make hook removal tough. If the hook is on a sealís outer mouth or body, it will typically be easier to remove. However, if a hook becomes lodged inside the mouth or throat, or if it is completely ingested, then the procedure becomes much more invasive. In some cases, NOAA staff may need to bring the seal to appropriate facilities to remove the hook surgically. Monk seals are most commonly hooked by circle hooks, which are the hardest hooks to remove due to their shape, size, and large barb at the end. These thick hooks require a series of cuts to shorten the hook until it can be safely removed. Monk seals can also get hooked by treble hooks and Damashi hooks, but these hooks are less common and smaller, allowing for easier removal.

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The difficulty of these siutations requires NOAA staff and partners to be always looking for ways to improve responses to maximize their success. Internal hook-extraction gear was specifically engineered to improve the retrieval of circle hooks embedded in deep regions of the seal, such as its esophagus and stomach. NOAA also has access to a portable X-ray machine, which can be used in the field to locate and confirm internal hooks. This machine is part of a collaboration with The Marine Mammal Center and is incredibly valuable. Having the portable X-ray spares responders from having to restrain the seal and bring it to the rehab facilities to perform an X-ray, and it reduces the amount of time the seal is being handled.

Tools for Recovery

In the next couple newsletters, weíll be featuring different tools and technologies used in monk seal recovery and response. We have a great group of young scientists volunteering at our NOAA offices who have each researched one of these tools/technologies and put together an article. In this issue, Alexa Gonzalez takes on the tricky business of de-hooking monk seals.

Defining Normal: Establishing Reference Ranges for Diagnostic Tests

A simple blood test may seem routine, but understanding an animal's condition can help guide life-saving interventions. When seals require veterinary care (for reasons such as poor health, ingested hooks, translocations, or rehabilitation) blood tests are performed to measure essential values that may detect an underlying problem. These values are crucial not only to understand what the problem may be, but what treatment is the most effective.

To detect health issues, however, blood value ranges have to be established to determine what is "normal." Normal ranges are determined from fresh blood samples collected from a large number of healthy monk seals and analyzed in a lab within 24 hours. Although NOAA samples healthy seals for routine physical examination annually, the number of seals sampled every year is low because the population in the main Hawaiian Islands is relatively small. To address this challenge, NOAA conducted a study using blood values gathered from healthy seals during routine physical examinations from the past 10 years. From this analysis, NOAA established a normal reference range for the Hawaiian monk seal that can now be used when a sick or injured seal requires veterinary intervention.

There are many examples in which basic blood tests have helped guide NOAA's treatment for seals. In 2012, for instance, one of the O‘ahu's North Shore residents, Honey Girl, showed up very skinny and lethargic. Upon examination, responders discovered fishing line around her tongue and blood work showed a severe case of infection and anemia. Honey Girl underwent surgery to repair her tongue and medication to treat her infection and anemia. NOAA continued to monitor her progress by observing her behavior and checking her blood before releasing her back to the wild. Honey Girl fully recovered and continues to pup on the North Shore of O‘ahu.

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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. You can find our April feature on a 24-year old seal called Petunia here.

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

Ke Kai Ola Rehabbed Seals Get Ready to Go Home!

Itís not just the Assessment and Recovery Camp crew returning to the NWHI this May, the four malnourished seals that have been in care at Ke Kai Ola since August 2016 will be released during the upcoming cruise. They have gained between 2.5 and 6 times their body weight since the time of rescue! All seals were given pre-release examinations in mid-April and passed with flying colors. The next step is to prepare for loading them on the ship and caring for them while at sea.

Hawaiian monk seal in cage.
Hawaiian monk seal, Niho‘ole, laying next to a log.
Hawaiian monk seal, Mea Ola, laying down.

Recent Events: Ocean Expo

The annual Hawai‘i Ocean Expo was held at the Blaisdell Center in Honolulu on April 8 and 9. NOAA monk seal team members manned an outreach booth alongside volunteers from partner organization Hawai‘i Marine Mammal Alliance. It was a great opportunity to reach an important audience, Hawai‘i's fishing community, as well as a chance for volunteers and staff to interact and share knowledge with each other. CritterCam footage was a big hit, as always, and the event was a success overall!

Three monk seal volunteers at Hawaiia Ocean Expo booth.
The public interacting with NOAA Fisheries booth
Two monk seal volunteers monitoring booth.

Upcoming Events

Look for our partners from DLNR's Marine Wildlife Program at the Hilo Trollers Tournament
Suisan Fish Market May 7
1:00 pm to 4:30 pm

Hawai‘i Marine Mammal Alliance will be at Endangered Species Day at the Honolulu Zoo
May 21, starting at 10:00 am

NOAA Fisheries and some of our partners will be participating in Ocean Fest at Turtle Bay Resort on O‘ahu's North Shore
June 3, starting at 10:00 am

Join Sustainable Coastlines Hawai‘i for a cleanup at Ala Moana Beach Park
June 10

More information available, visit Sustainable Coastline Hawai‘i Facebook 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 contact, Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Coordinator or, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program