Choosing Extinction

The Hawaiian monk seal

This young female monk seal became a public safety hazard and had to be removed from the MHI population after being illegally fed by humans.

More than 20 million years ago, a weasel-like progenitor to today's monk seals foraged in Canada's lakes. By 15 million years ago, the animal's descendants had evolved into seals similar to present-day monk seals. By 8 million years ago, monk seals had spread to both sides of the North Atlantic and to the eastern-central Pacific. When the Isthmus of Panama separated the two oceans about 3 to 4 million years ago, the species diverged into the Caribbean monk seal on one side of the continent and the Hawaiian monk seal on the other, while seals in the eastern Atlantic region evolved to become the Mediterranean monk seal.

At that time, the lower five of the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) had not yet emerged from the sea, so monk seals inhabited what is now known as Kauai and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), stretching out past Midway to Kure, colonizing new islands as they appeared. Hawaiian monk seals had no terrestrial enemies until humans arrived in the MHI around 1,000 years ago. It is believed that within a century Polynesian settlers and their dogs had all but extirpated the seals from the MHI.

A monk seal trying to rest on a beach near Kihei, Maui,
is surrounded by curious onlookers, some of whom
breached the safety zone and approached the seal.
Today the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Hawaiian monk seal as critically endangered, but some islanders are protesting recovery plans proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Some Hawaiian residents argue that Hawaiian monk seals are not native to their land: "The history of the monk seals is based on a lie perpetuated by environmental groups," Kawika Cutcher testified at a September 2011 public hearing on Kauai regarding federal proposals to relocate some of the seals to the main islands. "There's no mention of it in Hawaiian history."

"I think they just branded it," Kenika Matsuda protested. "Who gave them the name Hawaiian monk seal?" Kimo Rose asked at another hearing. "Where's the proof?"

A NOAA Fisheries Service 2011 survey of beachgoers and fishers in Hawaii found that 62 percent of those asked believe that monk seals are a native species, while 38 percent either do not believe that or are unsure. Other islanders recognize monk seals as Hawaiian but consider them indigenous only to the uninhabited NWHI and not to the inhabited MHI.

Some locals, however, recognize the Hawaiian monk seal as an indigenous rather than invasive species. "We grew up with monk seals. They were just rare, that's all," Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte explained. "The people who were killing them for oil did a pretty good job. There was a period of time that when you saw a monk seal, it was a big deal. I remember that when I was growing up word would spread that there was a monk seal on the beach, and a lot of people would come and look. They're making a comeback now, so people are not used to having them around."

A male monk seal spyhops to check the beach for females in the NWHI.
Hawaiian cultural and environmental consultant Trisha Kehaulani Watson maintains a website,, where she lists evidence that monk seals were found in the MHI from the precontact period through the 19th and 20th centuries. The evidence includes Hawaiian chants, traditional stories, seal-inspired place names, old Hawaiian-language newspapers, journals from visiting ships, Hawaiian families who consider the seals to be "aumakua" (divine ancestors) and archaeological discoveries of seal bones in Hawaiian refuse piles from both pre- and postcontact periods.

Biologists say that Hawaiian monk seals are very distinct from other monk seals. A 2014 research article in ZooKeys (Scheel, Slater, Kolokotronis, et al.) places Hawaiian and Caribbean monk seals in a separate genus from Mediterranean seals. The Caribbean monk seal has not been seen alive since 1952, and there are only about 500 Mediterranean monk seals left. Hawaiian seals number about 1,100 and are declining at about 3 percent per year.

Problems for monk seals in the NWHI began when commercial sealers started harvesting seals for oil and skins in the early 19th century. By 1824 the Hawaiian seal was believed to be extinct; however, when King Kamehameha IV visited the NWHI in 1857, he found about a dozen of the seals — several of which he shot. In 1859 a sailing vessel returned from an even more distant island with 1,500 skins. For the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, whalers and shipwrecked sailors along with bird, egg and guano harvesters harassed and consumed many of the few remaining seals.

Later in the 20th century, U.S. military and Coast Guard activity displaced seals from their prime habitats. After a reduction of these activities in the 1970s, some subpopulations in the NWHI began to recover, but the trend again reversed in the 1980s due to environmental changes, most likely related to commercial fishing, oceanographic oscillations, climate change or some combination of the three. By the 1990s every region in the NWHI saw monk seals dying more rapidly than they were being born. Seal numbers have continued to decline since fishing was phased out with the establishment of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006.

A young male shares a resting spot with a green sea turtle

Throughout the recorded history of the region until a few decades ago, nearly the entire population of Hawaiian monk seals was relegated to the remote NWHI. In the 1970s some seals established themselves on Niihau, at the north end of the MHI, and began to reproduce. As Niihau's population multiplied, seals began to migrate down the island chain, populating the rest of the MHI. This expansion of the MHI population was beneficial to the seals, as some of the specific problems affecting the NWHI do not extend to the MHI.

Currently, only one in five Hawaiian monk seal pups born in the NWHI survives to maturity. Some are snatched by sharks; others starve due to increased competition with large predatory fish for shrinking food supplies; still others drown after becoming entangled in fishing nets and other debris floating in the North Pacific "garbage patch" that drifts onto beaches and reefs. "What we're trying to do right now is to stop the bleeding," NOAA branch chief Jeff Walters said. "We're not expecting the population to increase. We're just trying to make the decline less steep."

Females in the MHI, on the other hand, give birth younger, have more pups, nurse their pups longer and wean fatter, healthier babies. MHI pups grow faster, and four out of five survive to maturity. Seals need to come ashore to rest and reproduce, so the MHI's 1,400 miles of shoreline offers more opportunities than the 50 miles in the NWHI. Moreover, as rising sea levels and erosion accelerate the loss of land, some of the NWHI are subsiding into the sea. There isn't much land in the NWHI that sits more than a few feet above sea level, and some islets used by the seals have recently disappeared, leaving the MHI as the main hope for the survival of the species. Studies project that if conditions remain the same, from 2010 to 2030 the population in the NWHI will drop from 900 seals to 200, but in the MHI the population may increase from 200 to 400. Unfortunately, not all MHI residents are thrilled with the increasing presence of seals.

Kenika Matsuda, for example, doesn't see any benefits from it. "The only thing I see is cons. They're eating the fish. They chase the fish away. I heard of them chasing people, too," he explains. "I think it's changing the ecosystem."

"These animals interfere with our traditional way of life," Timothy Oga wrote in a letter to The Garden Island, a Kauai newspaper. "When we lay our nets, soon there will be a hole in it. The monk seal makes it in order to steal our catch.… According to Hawaiian traditions, if an animal causes damage to your property, you kill him and eat him. That should be the fate of the Hawaiian monk seal."

These types of statements do not represent idle threats. From 2009 to 2012 at least eight seals were found dead on Kauai and Molokai with "suspicious" injuries. Only one of the deaths led to an arrest. For shooting and killing a pregnant female, the courts sentenced Charles Vidinha to three months in jail and a $25 fine. Four of the seals had apparently been bludgeoned to death during the three months following the public hearings on NOAA's seal-management plan, which proposed to temporarily move starving juveniles from the NWHI to the MHI, where they would be more likely to survive. That proposal was tabled due to public opposition and logistical concerns. Instead, starting in 2014 NOAA is bringing some of the at-risk youngsters to a captive facility in the MHI to fatten them up for six to 12 weeks before taking them back to the NWHI.

Suspicion that seals are reappearing in the MHI due to government intervention derives in part from a 1994 translocation to the MHI of 21 aggressive males that had been biting females (sometimes fatally) at Laysan Island. The operation successfully rebalanced the sex ratio at Laysan and ended the assaults, but it was a public relations disaster. Walters argues that NOAA bringing the males to the MHI did nothing to change the population growth because no females were included; however, his argument often falls on deaf ears. NOAA scientist Charles Littnan includes in his public presentations a denial of rumors that he transports monk seals to the MHI at night in black helicopters.

After its release by NOAA scientists, a seal heads back toward the water
loaded with a National Geographic crittercam.

Apart from the controversy surrounding the seals' historical habitat, the fact is that for these seals to survive they must coexist with humans in the MHI. Because of the greater human presence, seals in the MHI understandably face different problems from those in the NWHI. The beaches on which they need to sleep and raise their young are increasingly occupied by humans, and not all are considerate to seals. Several animals associated with human habitation endanger seals either directly or indirectly. For example, dogs are known to kill seals and drive them off of beaches, and they also have the potential to transmit canine distemper. Cats transmit toxoplasmosis through their feces; five seals have already died from this parasite in the MHI. Rats transmit leptospirosis, which has been found in seal carcasses. Additionally, seals sometimes drown in nets, are run over by boats and get hooked, speared, shot, clubbed and pelted with rocks.

Unlike the issues the seals face in the NWHI, most of the problems for monk seals in the MHI are ones that can be solved if there is a will to do so. Even if Hawaiian residents are divided in this regard, U.S. law mandates full protection of marine mammals and recovery efforts for endangered species.

The Hawaiian monk seal is the most critically endangered marine mammal under sole U.S. jurisdiction. On some days there are more sea lions on Pier 39 in San Francisco than there are Hawaiian monk seals in existence. A NOAA analysis estimates that nearly one-third of Hawaiian monk seals are alive only because of interventions by its personnel. The number of interventions is directly related to the length of the field seasons for the NOAA team in the NWHI, and that is determined by the recovery budget. NOAA's monk seal recovery plan requests $7.5 million per year to conduct activities necessary for population recovery, but actual funding was only $2 million to $3 million per year from 2011 to 2014. By contrast, when Alaska's population of Steller sea lions dropped to 25,000, the government allocated $40 million per year for recovery efforts, perhaps due to varying degrees of political influence.

Increasingly, monk-seal management and recovery activities in the MHI rely on assistance from unpaid volunteers and nonprofit organizations. After budget and staff cuts, NOAA manager David Schofield told volunteers: "I used to ask you to do more with less. Now I need you to do everything with nothing." The Monk Seal Foundation, which was founded in 2011, manages networks of volunteers on two islands and supports seal protection and education activities statewide. In 2014 the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., opened Ke Kai Ola, a hospital for monk seals, on Hawaii Island. The small facility treats injured, diseased and malnourished seals from throughout the MHI and NWHI and then returns the seals to their places of origin for release.

Volunteers and nongovernmental organizations are helping to slow the seal's march to extinction, but the ultimate result will not change unless both the federal government and the citizens of Hawaii choose another destiny for this rare and remarkable species.

"Hawaiians were always taught to keep everything in balance. Everything in the ocean was revered," Ritte said. "Today in Hawaii we haven't managed our ocean, and now there's not enough for everybody. The fishermen are angry about it, and the monk seals are smart enough to take fish from their hooks right in front of them. That's why they're angry with the seal, but the seal was here first. As a Hawaiian, what I'm saying is whatever happens to the monk seal, the same thing's going to happen to the Hawaiians."

For More Information

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Watch National Geographic's Monk Seal Mystery — Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

© Alert Diver — Fall 2014