Hawaiian Monk Seals

Marine Conservation Institute's monk seal campaign focuses on working constructively with fisherman and other stakeholders to meet the seal's conservation needs, while also educating the public on how to co-exist with the growing number of seals in the main Hawaiian Islands. Our new report, Enhancing the Future of the Hawaiian Monk Seal: Recommendations for the NOAA Recovery Programtakes a detailed look at the seal recovery program and how it could be improved to achieve a self-sustaining population in the next several decades.

Although seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands are increasing through natural reproduction, the high mortality of seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is causing and an overall population decline of about 4% per year. If that trend continues, in less than 20 years, the population would be halved to 450-550 seals and the species would be in an extremely precarious position, leaving it vulnerable to a disease outbreak or environmental disruption events like hurricanes or ocean warming. 

William Chandler, the report's author, said, “Recovering the monk seal is not rocket science; we can do this, but NOAA has to be serious about implementing its own plan. The agency also needs to be more transparent about its activities and needs so that other agencies and nonprofits can help. If we lose the battle to save the Hawaiian monk seal, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.” 

The Hawaiian monk seal has thrived for the past 13 million years in the oceanic waters and coral reefs of the Hawaiian Islands. Today, the Hawaiian monk seal is critically endangered and headed toward extinction. Hawaiian monk seals are the most endangered endemic marine mammal in the USA and one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Over the last 50 years, the Hawaiian monk seal population has declined by more than 60% and is now at its lowest level in recorded history (fewer than 1100). Reasons for the decline of the monk seal include: human hunting of species to near extinction in the mid-1800s; entanglement in fishing marine debris; unintentional hooking and entanglement in fishing gear; loss of habitat for pupping and resting; competition for food in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI); aggression by males that kill females or pups; and shark predation in the NWHI.

Most Hawaiian monk seals can be found around the NWHI in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, but a small and growing number now live in the main Hawaiian Islands.  The overall population is declining, but the increase in the main Hawaiian Islands is promising for the future of the species.  However, with more seals in the human populated islands of the Hawaiian Islands, more people will interact with the seal. Efforts to help humans and seals to co-exist with each other is important for the recovery of the species. 

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Image Credits: Tern Island Seawall - USFWS; all others - NOAA