Hawaii’s State Mammal on Hawaii Statehood Day

Hawaiian Monk SealAugust 21, 2015 was the 56th anniversary of Hawaiian statehood. To celebrate this occasion, NOAA Fisheries would like to highlight Hawaii’s state mammal, and one of NOAA Fisheries’ Species in the Spotlight, the Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi). Its Hawaiian name,`ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, means “dog that runs in rough water”. One of the most exciting things to see in Hawaii, either in the water or hauled out, is the Hawaiian monk seal. This charismatic animal has an enviable lifestyle: frolicking in Hawaiian waters, lounging on sandy beaches, and dining on delicious seafood. But how much do you know about this endangered marine mammal?


A Unique Tropical Treasure

While most other seals live in colder waters, the tropical Hawaiian monk seal is a rare exception to that rule. The monk seal gets its name from both the extra folds of skin around its neck area that vaguely resembles a monk’s cowl and its largely solitary lifestyle. Monk seals are special in the Hawaiian culture. Some people associate them with the ancient Hawaiian deity Lono, and some consider the seal to be `aumakua, a family ancestor spirit. These seals arrived in the Hawaiian islands nearly 15 million years ago. This means Hawaiian monk seals were swimming in Hawaiian waters millions of years before any of the Main Hawaiian Islands (Hawaii, Kahoolawe, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau) broke through the surface of the ocean. Moreover, monk seals had already lived in Hawaii for millions of years when the first Polynesian settlers arrived nearly 2,000 years ago. Hawaiian monk seals dine on crustaceans (lobster and crab), cephalopods (octopus and squid), fish and eels.

Trying to Beat the Heat

Hawaiian Monk Seal

'Ilio-holo-i-kauaua, Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) hauled out on the beach

Hawaiian monk seals need to manage their body temperature to deal with the tropical heat. Because the water temperature is usually cooler than the air temperature in Hawaii, monk seals can dissipate some body heat in the water. They often rest or spend time in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Sometimes immobile for several hours, Hawaiian monk seals can appear deceased to the untrained eye. During their time onshore, they sometimes move from dryer, warmer sand to wetter, cooler sand.


Critically Endangered

y4dk and pup

Mother with newborn pup

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered animals on the planet. As of 2013, the best estimate of the population was 1,209 animals.1 Seal hunting and other human activities reduced the population nearly to extinction by the early 1900’s. The seal showed great resilience and the population rebounded until the 1950’s when numbers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands began to decline again. Numbers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands continue to decline but the decline has slowed dramatically in recent years. Recently, monk seals have reestablished themselves in the main Hawaiian Islands and their population, currently at about 200 seals, is growing rapidly.


Only Two Monk Seal Species

Besides the Hawaiian monk seal, there is only one other monk seal species remaining on the planet. Approximately 600 Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus) still exist, and that number is decreasing. The Mediterranean monk seal is on the IUCN Red List of critically endangered species and considered the most endangered pinniped in the world. The Caribbean monk seal is already extinct.


Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery


'Ilio-holo-i-kauaua eating humuhumunukunukuapua’a (Reef triggerfish or Rhinecanthus rectangulus), the unofficial state fish of Hawai’i. Photo courtesy of Lesley Macpearson.

Two pieces of federal legislation, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as Hawaii state law protect the Hawaiian monk seal. However, this charismatic animal needs additional help. The threats to monk seal survival are numerous and vary over the species range and time. NOAA’s monk seal recovery efforts are the world’s most proactive marine mammal recovery program.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program is a program run by NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. They study Hawaiian monk seal biology, ecology, and natural history to help with their recovery. Along with the research program, the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office, and other agency and community partners, strive for a sustainable Hawaiian monk seal population.


Recent Efforts to Help the Hawaiian Monk Seal

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and their partners implement a wide range of recoveries. Two of the newest include vaccinations and translocatons, or moving seals from areas of low survival to areas of high survival.

A group of Hawaiian monk seals at Nihoa Island

A group of seals at Nihoa Island.

The risk of an infectious disease outbreak could threaten the small and isolated Hawaiian monk seal population. There are diseases that monk seals are naïve to that have killed thousands of marine mammals around the world. For the last several years the HMSRP has been developing a vaccination program to protects seals from a catastrophic disease event. Planning and preparing to quickly respond to such an event is crucial. In July 2015, NOAA recovery biologists conducted a Hawaiian monk seal vaccination drill. No monk seals were actually vaccinated during the drill. However, the drill tested for gaps in protocols, communications, data collection and overall preparedness. This will help scientists to be better prepared in the face of disease outbreaks with this endangered population. Drills like this are part of a proactive effort to train staff and volunteers for a real emergency vaccination. NOAA Fisheries performs drills in addition to the regular vaccination efforts conducted during regular research activities.

NOAA biologists are also successfully relocating weaned juvenile Hawaiian monk seals. They move animals from areas with poor survivorship to areas with greater survival probability. Some islands, like the French Frigate Shoals, have high instance of shark predation, which can reduce numbers of monk seals. Islands receiving translocated animals over the years include Nihoa, Laysan, Lisianski Island, and Kure Atoll. There are a total of 137 islands (including minor islands and islets) in the Hawaiian Island chain.

These, and other efforts by NOAA Fisheries biologists and partners, aim to help recover Hawaiian monk seals to bring their population back to a level where they are no longer at risk of extinction.


What Can You Do?

Hawaiian monk seal mom and pup

Hawaiian monk seal mother (right) and her nursing pup

The new draft Main Hawaiian Islands Monk Seal Management Plan describes a vision, strategies, and ideas for how we can work toward co-existence between seals and people. It was open for public comment until September 9, 2015.

Learn about the ways you can help Hawaii’s state mammal, the Hawaiian monk seal. And, if you visit Hawaii, be on the lookout for these amazing animals!

Post Script: Remember to call the Hawaiian Monk Seal Sighting Hotline at (808) 220-7802 or email pifsc.monksealsighting@noaa.gov if you see a seal, and never approach or touch one on your own.