They are a source of delight as they frolic in the water or snooze on the beach and a source of controversy when they steal bait from a fisherman’s hook. But there is no controversy over the fact that Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most critically endangered marine mammals on the planet.

Concerted federal, state and community efforts are all needed to save this iconic species – and the official state mammal of Hawaii. Unfortunately, recovery efforts remain hampered by insufficient budgets, inadequate government coordination and transparency, and by pockets of community opposition based on misunderstanding and myth.

A new study by the Marine Conservation Institute, done with the help of local firm Honua Consulting, provides guidance on how recovery efforts can be improved in Hawaii to the benefit of both the species and the community.

Hawaiian monk Seals

Hawaiian monk seals on a beach.

Courtesy of B.E.A.C.H.

With an estimated population of 900 to 1,100 animals, the Hawaiian monk seal is one of the three most endangered seals on earth and the most endangered in the United States. It’s the last surviving member of its biological genus. The fate of the seal, which lives only in Hawaii, depends primarily on how effectively NOAA Fisheries and its partners — the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and interested nonprofits — implement the federal recovery program for the seal.

The study takes a detailed look at the recovery program and makes recommendations for how it can be improved. While it is a great success that the current program is estimated to have been responsible for the lives of almost one-third of the current population, it is also true that the population is declining by 3 to 4 percent annually and would be halved in 20 years, down to around 500 individuals, unless the decline is reversed and the population rebuilds.

The report illustrates how a lack of commitment to community education and outreach programs in the main Hawaiian Islands, along with a lack of efficient coordination between agencies, is contributing to the slide toward extinction.

“If NOAA wants to reverse the long decline of this iconic species, it is going to have to be more aggressive,” said Dr. Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute. “This means NOAA will have to increase its budget for the seal, focus program management on tangible objectives that keep seals alive, and organize more help from other federal and state agencies and nonprofits.”

The challenge of rebuilding monk seal populations is truly one conducted on two fronts: the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the main Hawaiian Islands. Both have unique challenges.

In the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where most seals live and the population continues to decline, the problems have been malnutrition, disease, marine debris entanglement, predation, other environmental changes and the difficulty of doing conservation work in such a remote location. In the future, climate change may make things worse out there too.

It’s in the main Hawaiian Islands, where the seal population is growing, that nonprofits, community groups and engaged citizens can provide the most support. The growing presence of seals has delighted many tourists and conservationists, but it has also stirred the ire of some fisherman and ocean users who fear the seals will be used as motivation to increase federal regulations and criminalize unintended interactions with seals, like accidental hooking on fishing lines.

Friends of the monk seal all over Hawaii hope that the new governor and new leadership at DLNR will redouble the state’s efforts, and commitment, to the species and develop strong interagency partnerships.

In President Obama’s newest proposed budget, there is a large increase in federal funding for state efforts to recover endangered species. Our hope is that Hawaii will capture some of that increase to work on the monk seal recovery program. Despite years of federal funding to DLNR for monk seal work, the impact of that money remains unclear. The new report suggests tangible and effective tasks the state could take on, especially those that involve community outreach efforts.

Education and community outreach programs are badly needed to get community buy-in for the monk seals.

To succeed, community outreach must be sustained to build trust based on actions and help solve problems that the community says it has with the species or area in question. These community programs must be locally driven if they are to build the levels of trust and co-existence needed to successfully contribute to meeting conservation goals.

The Marine Conservation Institute report on saving the Hawaiian monk seal gives us a roadmap for achieving success — a sustainable population. That success is achievable only if the federal and state governments work with local communities and redouble their efforts to save the state’s official marine mammal. If Hawaii values this species, it must take the report’s recommendations seriously and work swiftly to implement them.

Report author William Chandler notes, “If we lose the battle to save the Hawaiian monk seal, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.”

He’s absolutely correct.

Disclosure: Marine Conservation Institute is a U.S. nonprofit organization that works with partners around the world to protect essential ocean places and the wild species in them. Since 2007, Marine Conservation Institute has advocated for the protection and recovery of the Hawaiian monk seal. The author works with Marine Conservation Institute on their conservation project for the Hawaiian monk seal.

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