KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Four malnourished Hawaiian monk seals were brought to Ke Kai Ola, the Marine Mammal Center’s monk seal hospital in Kona, after being transported from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The NOAA Research vessel Oscar Elton Sette picked up the new patients – two pups that were weaned too early, one yearling and an extremely underweight five-year-old – during its final mission on a 24-day research cruise.
“Even though the five-year-old Hawaiian monk seal is older than our typical patients from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, she is much smaller and thinner than the others in her cohort,” says Dr. Michelle Barbieri, Wildlife Veterinary Medical Officer with NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. “She has generally declined in condition over the past two seasons, and appeared to decline even more dramatically this season.”
The Hawaiian monk seal is a critically endangered species, the Marine Mammal Center says.
Hawaiian monk seals, which have been on the decline for decades, have a current population of about 1,300 individuals. Young seals are the most vulnerable animals in the population with relatively few surviving to adulthood. Pups and juvenile seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands often fall victim to threats like entanglement in ocean trash, changes in the food chain and predation. NOAA has a suite of tools to combat many of these threats and the partnership with The Marine Mammal Center to rehabilitate skinny seals is one of the most critical.
Work to rehabilitate the seals began immediately, officials say. The four animals underwent physical exams and had bloodwork done while aboard the Oscar Elton Sette, and have already begun a strict treatment regime, including oral electrolytes, subcutaneous fluids, fish-mash tube feedings and antibiotics.
Ke Kai Ola’s veterinary experts will work to heal the seals using the Kona facility’s two neonate (newborn) rehabilitation pens and pools, quarantine pen areas and two larger pens and pools for older seals. So far, the team has successfully rehabilitated and returned 15 monk seals to the wild – more than one percent of the species’ total population.