Hawaiian Monk Seal Population On The Rise

Jan 25, 2017

Two weaned Hawaiian monk seal pups sleeping at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Credit NOAA

New data reveals some good news for Hawaiian monk seals. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, population numbers for the endangered species are on the rise. HPR’s Molly Solomon has more.

It’s feeding time at the Hawaiian monk seal exhibit at Waikīkī Aquarium. A crowd of children peers into the water tank as Ho’a, one of the aquarium’s two seals, feasts on a lunch of whole fish.  

Credit Flickr / OutriggerHawaii.com

After a decade of conservation efforts, experts predict a brighter future for seals like Hō‘ā. Recently released population estimates show there are now 1,400 seals throughout the Hawaiian Islands. That’s a hundred more since last year.

“Breaking down that number, it’s 1,100 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and roughly 300 in the main Hawaiian Islands,” said Charles Littnan, the lead scientist with NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. He said the population has been increasing 3 percent each year for the past three years.

“For population monitors, 3 percent after looking at some 60 years of decline is a very happy trend to see,” Littnan said. “We have an incredibly long way to go towards recovery, but the really important thing here is emphasizing hope.”

Over the last three years, juvenile survival rates have greatly improved. Historically, less than one in five monk seals survived into adulthood.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say not only did the population increase, but overall it’s looking relatively stable,” said Littnan. “It’s looking well supported by these trends and that’s really exciting.”

Credit NOAA

That uptick is largely due to action taken to disentangle seals from marine debris and rehabilitation programs for malnourished seals at a Kona seal hospital on the Big Island. Littnan believes about 30 percent of the current seal population are alive today because of these efforts.

“The system has been really supportive for monk seals,” he said. “We’re hoping that with that stability in the population and this turning the corner, that will be sustained.”

But Littnan says the critically endangered species still has a long way to go to reach full recovery. Current numbers are only about one-third of historic Hawaiian monk seal population levels.