Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals Are Bouncing Back

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Hawaiian monk seals can rest a little easier now — not that they've ever had much trouble resting. (Photo: NOAA/HMSRP).

Hawaiian monk seals had 121 new pups in 2014, according to scientists with the U.S. Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP). And since only 1,200 of the critically endangered marine mammals are left in the wild, that means this year's babies represent 10 percent of their entire species.

Researchers have been scouring the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for newborn monk seals since June, finally issuing this month's tally of 121. That's a 17.5 percent increase from 2013, when 103 babies were found, and it's up 9 percent from 111 in 2012. "Preliminary numbers indicate that survival of young seals may be improving overall as well," the California-based Marine Mammal Center reports.

Hawaiian monk seal
Monk seals often haul out to nap on Hawaii beaches, delighting onlookers with their contented "smiles.". (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Hawaiian monk seal is Hawaii's only native seal, and one of two monk seal species left on Earth. A Caribbean variety was hunted to extinction in the 1950s, leaving just Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals, both of which are now critically endangered. The latter is down to about 600 individuals, while Hawaii's seals — which branched off from their closest relatives 15 million years ago — are declining 4 percent annually. Scientists have warned they could fall below 1,000 individuals within a few years.

Hunting is a familiar threat to Hawaii's monk seals, having nearly driven them extinct in the 19th century. They were added to the U.S. endangered species list in 1976, and a large "critical habitat" was set aside for them in 1988. Although it's illegal to kill, capture or harass the seals, they still face threats such as bycatch in fishing gear, entanglement in marine debris, boat strikes, beach erosion, disease outbreaks and food shortages — all compounded by low genetic diversity.

Hawaiian monk seal swimming
A diet of fish, cephalopods and crustaceans helps Hawaiian monk seals grow up to 7.5 feet long and 450 pounds. (Photo: NOAA)

That makes this year's baby boom especially great for Hawaiian monk seals, which are considered a "conservation-dependent species" because they would likely plummet without preservation efforts. On top of counting pups, the annual survey involves moving young seals from areas of low survival — like Midway and Kure atolls, where only 25 percent of seals reach age 3 — to safer places like Laysan Island, where their odds of survival are 60 to 70 percent, according to the Marine Mammal Center.

Conservationists say the recent spike in seal pups might foreshadow more population growth in the near future, especially now that a state-of-the-art monk seal hospital has opened on the Big Island of Hawaii. Named Ke Kai Ola ("The Healing Sea"), the $3.2 million facility debuted in September with a mission to "give more pups a better shot at survival and adult seals a second chance when they need it." Along with multiple pens and pools for seals of various ages, the hospital includes a fish kitchen, a medical lab, quarantine areas, staff quarters and an extensive seawater filtration system.

"We built this hospital to save a species," Marine Mammal Center executive director Jeff Boehm said at a grand opening and blessing ceremony on Sept. 3. "Maintaining a balance of providing positive care and keeping the wildness of the animals treated is of utmost importance."

Hawaiian monk seal on beach
A young monk seal unwinds at sunset on French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: Mark Sullivan/NMFS)

In the meantime, a bumper crop of baby seals at least offers hope things are headed in the right direction. For a look at some of the eager upstarts who will soon help lead their species' comeback, here's a video of two pups — named Ikaika and Kulia — greeting each other at Ke Kai Ola: