Scientists and government officials delivered some rare good news Tuesday about one of the world’s most endangered animals, the Hawaiian monk seal.
The latest population estimate shows their numbers are on a slow but steady increase, rising 3 percent annually for the past three years. There are now 1,400 seals but that’s still only one-third of historic levels.
“We’re basically just looking at a glimmer of hope now,” said Jeff Walters, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Wildlife Management and Conservation Branch for the Pacific Islands Regional Office.
“Everybody needs to feel like these animals belong to them, that they’re invested,” Walters said. “We can coexist.”
Most of the seals — roughly 1,100 — live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands more than 1,000 miles from Honolulu. The rest live in the main Hawaiian Islands, where they face far more threats, ranging from fish hooks and nets to a new threat, parasitic diseases spread by feral cats.
Charles Littnan, lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said the population is stable or growing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but in the main Hawaiian Islands it has stalled.
He attributed the population increase to human intervention programs — such as reuniting pups with their mothers, disentanglements from marine debris and rehabilitations — along with environmental shifts, namely a strong El Nino weather event.
Angela Amlin, NOAA Fisheries’ Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator, said there were 297 interventions in the last 10 years between adult female seals and their pups.
“We must not rest on our laurels,” she said, noting how the seal population is only recently increasing after several decades of decline.
Hawaiian monk seals have mostly made headlines in recent years when they die. People have killed them while they were sleeping on beaches despite state and federal laws that protect the species. And toxoplasmosis, a parasite transmitted in the fecal matter of some feral cats, has proven fatal to at least eight seals.
She and Bruce Anderson, DLNR’s administrator of the Division of Aquatic Resources, also noted that a federally funded barbless fishing hooks program has helped reduce seal injuries without affecting catch.
“They’re part of our heritage,” Case said of the Hawaiian monk seals.
State and federal officials signed a document during the event Tuesday morning at the Waikiki Aquarium that declared 2017 the Year of the Monk Seal and reaffirmed their partnerships.