Earlier this week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers captured two Hawaiian monk seal pups in the Northwestern Hawaii islands and are relocating the young animals to waters where they are less likely to be eaten by sharks. That is great news for anyone concerned with the future of the highly endangered animal.

It takes on an even greater significance, however, when you consider that scientists believe there are now only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left and that the population is declining by about 4 percent annually. Or that the Caribbean monk seal was declared extinct in 2008, and the Mediterranean monk seal is teetering on the edge of extinction, with only about 600 of them remaining in the wild. Both are genetic cousins of the Hawaiian seal.

In such an environment, every pup counts, and these two, prematurely weaned by their mother, likely wouldn’t have survived without intervention. Though the Northwestern Hawaii islands are still home to most of these seals, the population there is declining, with the greatest threat being predation on juveniles. The animals are faring better around the main islands, where  threats are ironically fewer.

Monk Seals on Beach

The population of Hawaiian monk seals is continuing to decline despite being protected under federal law. More needs to be done.

Courtesy B.E.A.C.H.

While 1,100 animals isn’t a lot, it’s still considered a sufficiently genetically diverse group that it could serve as a foundation for recovery of the species, according to to officials with the Center for Biological Diversity. If this species is to be saved, the time for action is now.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently considering establishing “critical habitat” for our seal in coastal areas throughout the Hawaiian islands. The designation would require federal agencies to take precautions to ensure that activities they permit, fund or carry out in the area don’t adversely affect the habitat.

The designation wouldn’t prevent development within its boundaries, though it would require that NMFS and developers consult on planned projects, in an effort to ensure development doesn’t negatively affect the seal’s habitat. Harbors, ports and select military-use areas would be excluded from the critical habitat designation, as well, and it likewise would not restrict public access.

Though NMFS seems poised to act soon on the proposal, the critical habitat process has dragged on for seven years, with the rule change formally proposed four years ago. Over that time, the agency has received more than 20,000 comments from the public, businesses, advocacy groups and others, and is prepared to make a judgment based on an abundance of facts, scientific perspective and community input.

From our perspective, the most compelling information to consider is this: Endangered species whose habitats are declared critical are roughly twice as likely to be in recovery than those not included, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. For marine animals suffering from human impacts — floating debris, encounters with fishing equipment like nets or hooks, dredging or other activities affecting water quality — critical habitat designation may provide the breathing room necessary for it to re-establish itself and mount a successful fight for survival.

The Hawaiian monk seal is already included on NOAA’s list of eight species most likely to go extinct in the near future. If we are to take any further meaningful action to aid in its recovery, we cannot responsibly wait.

We encourage the federal agency to complete its work expeditiously and approve the critical habitat designation for this iconic species, native to these islands and known in the Hawaiian language as ‘ilio holo i ka uaua, or “dog that runs in rough water.”

It has perhaps never run in seas as rough as those it currently faces, but with our help now, the Hawaiian monk seal may be seen on our coastlines for generations to come.

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