Hopes rise for Hawaiian monk seals
The population of Hawaiian monk seals has been rising. It has gone up 3 percent a year. It has occurred for the past three years. That is what federal wildlife officials said Jan. 24. Hawaiian monk seals are one of the world's most critically endangered marine mammals.
There are now about 1,400 of the seals in the wild. That is according to Charles Littnan. He is lead scientist of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. It is at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"This is phenomenal, hopeful news for the population," Littnan told reporters in Honolulu. "Yet we have a long way to go to recovery."
The population has seen growth in the past. That includes the mid-2000s. But Littnan said those were minor blips.
Hawaiian monk seals went down in numbers for years. It happened most recently as young seals struggled to compete for food with large fish and sharks. This was in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The area is a mostly uninhabited stretch of tiny atolls. It includes Midway.
Sharks also recently attacked weaned seals at French Frigate Shoals. It is one of the chain's most pristine atolls.
At one point, only one in five juveniles in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands lived to adulthood.
Littnan said more young seals are surviving. This is in part because of programs like those that free seals from marine debris. And another that takes malnourished young seals to a Big Island seal hospital to nurse them back to health.
Littnan says about 30 percent of Hawaiian monk seals are alive. That is because of the programs, he said.
He also credited the rebound to broader environmental changes. One is El Nino. That is a periodic warming of parts of the Pacific. El Nino changes weather globally. El Nino patterns can help boost the food supply for the seals. They eat squid, eels, crab and other marine life.
The population in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is estimated at about 1,100. The population in the Main Hawaiian Islands, home to Honolulu and other cities, is 300. The population in the main islands was growing for many years. But it has leveled out and stabilized, Littnan said.
The monk seal population had been declining since the 1950s. Back then, federal authorities counted 3,400 seals on Northwestern Hawaiian Island beaches. Federal officials want to return the population to that level.
Littnan cautioned that the population increase could shift radically.
"This should be a bright spark, a glimmer of hope, that thing that fuels conservation. It shouldn't breed complacency," he said.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Where are young seals more vulnerable?
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