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Threatened and Endangered Species Program


Saving Hawaiian Monk Seals from Extincition

Founded in 1975, The Marine Mammal Center (the Center) is a nonprofit organization that rescues, rehabilitates and releases injured, sick and orphaned marine mammals (seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, whales and sea otters) along a 600 mile stretch of California coastline.

The Center is the largest marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility in the world to combine animal rehabilitation with an on-site research lab, and the only one to treat 600-800 animals a year. In addition, the Center engages in a wide range of research on marine mammal diseases and behavior, publishing its findings in leading scientific journals. Moreover, knowledge gained from the Center's work with stranded animals has also been applied to the recovery efforts for endangered and threatened species around the world including Steller sea lions, Guadalupe fur seals, Southern sea otters, Northern fur seals, Hooker sea lions in the Auckland Islands, and Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals.

While historically the Center's work with threatened and endangered marine mammal species has only been performed on an ad hoc basis, thanks to a recent $300,000 federal government appropriation sponsored by U.S. Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), the Center is now in a position to formalize its efforts through the establishment of The Threatened and Endangered Species Program at the Center.

The goals of The Threatened and Endangered Species Program are as follows:

  1. Respond to and rehabilitate sick and injured threatened and endangered pinniped and cetacean species found in Hawaii and along the Center's 600-mile rescue range along the Northern and Central California coast
  2. Pursue scientific research into the health and underlying causes of the population declines of threatened and endangered marine mammal species
  3. Provide professional and technical support to organizations working to protect threatened and endangered marine mammal species nationally and internationally
  4. Create a comprehensive conservation program, in conjunction with federal, state and NGO partners, for the Hawaiian monk seal

While the first three goals will be buttressed by the formalization of ongoing activities, the fourth goal for the Hawaiian monk seal conservation project is most urgent due to the endangered status of the Hawaiian monk seal.

Current State of the Hawaiian Monk Seal

The Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1976, and remains the most endangered marine mammal that is endemic to the United States. Over the last three decades, significant efforts have been made to enhance the recovery of seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), but after a period of relative stability during the 1990s the population has declined at a rate of about 4% per year for the past decade (see chart below). This decline is driven largely by poor juvenile survival with fewer than one of every five seals surviving to reproductive age (i.e., ≥ 5 years of age). The decreasing trend in total population will continue indefinitely unless survival of juvenile monk seals substantially improves. Hence, immediate intervention is needed to enhance recovery of the species.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Program will consist of the following components:

  1. The construction of a Hawaiian monk seal healthcare facility in Kona, Hawaii. Due to the urgency to save the Hawaiian monk seal, the construction of the healthcare facility is of the utmost priority at this time.
  2. Ongoing scientific research programs to monitor the health of the monk seal population and assess the viability of translocation alternatives in the Hawaiian archipelago. A multi-year research study is currently in progress by the Center and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to assess the viability of Nihoa as a translocation option for the monk seals.
  3. An education and public outreach program throughout the Hawaiian Islands. An education and public outreach campaign is in place through the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI), a non-profit organization. The Center has a highly successful marine science education program for schools and the public at its headquarters in Sausalito, and will work to enhance the ongoing work of NMFS and MCBI by modeling some of its programs for schoolchildren and the public in Hawaii.

A Healthcare Facility to Support Juvenile Survival

A primary cause of poor juvenile survival is starvation due to insufficient prey availability, such that supplemental feeding of young seals could increase survival. A centralized healthcare facility would allow captive care and treatment of monk seals in a controlled setting with high quality medical equipment at relatively low cost.

Contrary to trends in the NWHI, a relatively small but increasing population of seals occurs throughout the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). In 2008, a total of 113 individual seals were identified in the MHI. Moreover, juvenile survival rates in the MHI are considerably higher than in the NWHI, and the typical good body condition of MHI seals suggests that prey limitation is not a primary concern. While the increasing population in the MHI is encouraging, the region presents a host of potential threats to monk seals including human disturbance, fishery interactions and exposure to diseases from domestic and feral animals.

Thus, monk seals subject to captive care efforts in the MHI, unlike those from the NWHI, will only include seals that are sick, injured or otherwise in need of medical care. Candidates for captive care may include seals of any age.

The Marine Mammal Center plans to develop a facility on the property of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) to enhance the recovery of endangered Hawaiian monk seals in three ways: 1) rehabilitation of sick and injured seals from across the archipelago, 2) supplemental feeding of undernourished seals from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and 3) the quarantine and/or holding of animals that are part of potential translocation programs.

The cost to build this facility is currently estimated in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million, and operating costs are estimated at $200,000 annually for the first three years of operations (given the current economic conditions, we believe it is crucial to raise capital funds as well as a three-year operating cushion simultaneously). The Center has commenced a capital campaign to raise funds for this project, and is currently in the quiet phase of the campaign.

Given the urgency to save the Hawaiian monk seal, the Center would like to begin construction in July 2010 and complete the initial phase of the facility by November 2010.

Strategic Partners for the Healthcare Facility

The Center's primary partner in the development of this facility is a federal government agency - the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The relationship between NMFS and the Center is a strong one; the Center operates under a letter of authorization provided by NMFS, the Center and the NMFS Science Center in Hawaii share a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to conserve the monk seal, and on another level, the Center and NMFS work collegially on joint research initiatives, working groups, and on occasion the Center's staff are contracted to assist in achieving the goals of NMFS as well as collective goals.

Most notably, the Center is represented on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team (HMSRT), an advisory team for NMFS charged with creating and implementing the plan for ensuring the recovery of this critically endangered species. The plan for, and the operations of, the facility at NELHA will be guided by the interests and direction of the HMSRT. The Center will be the leaseholder for the planned facility, and day to day operations at the facility will be managed by the Center. However, because of the strong partnership and the benefit derived from it, the Center and NMFS will work in a coordinated and strategic way to advance the planning, implementation and operations of the planned facility.

Location of Facility

The Center has received approval to construct the planned facility by leasing land owned by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) in Kona, HI. NELHA has a variety of resources and benefits for developing a monk seal rehabilitation and care facility on the site. First and foremost is the potential that all the necessary basic infrastructure and permits are already in existence. The NELHA master permits (Conservation District Use Permit (HA-1862, HA-1862A), Special Management Area Use Permits (77, 239)) and environmental studies that are already in place will allow the Center to implement plans within a shorter timeframe than if it had to acquire these on its own. This will allow the Center to undertake this recovery effort sooner and with less expense. The established infrastructure (intake pipe, pumps, sub-pumps) means that the Center will only need to develop the pipe system to get the Class AA quality water to its own filtration and circulation system. This will cut facility costs dramatically. The final critical piece of infrastructure is security. The controlled access to the site will ensure that this monk seal facility remains safe for both the staff and the seals.

NELHA's proximity to the Kona International Airport and Honokohau Harbor are critical factors for this facility, as well. Most seals that will be cared for in this facility will be transported from other main Hawaiian Islands or from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The short distance from airport or harbor ensures minimum transport time and risk to the seals.

The operation of a facility such as this requires a small staff and core group of volunteers, ideally supplied by the local community. The proximity of NELHA to the residential area will provide an important resource for the personnel necessary to help run the facility and to engage with education and public outreach programs in the future.

Description of Facility

The planned facility on the NELHA site will provide three separate pools and holding capacity for up to nine animals. Adjacent to these pools will be a laboratory for the processing of biological and water samples, a food preparation room for the cold storage and breakout of fish, and offices to accommodate on-site staff and colleagues.

Following is an overview of the first phase of the facility:

  1. Three fiberglass pools 12' x 16' set in-ground (a final determination on in-ground, or above ground pools will be made in consultation with NELHA and others) and surrounded by a dry haul out area of 26' x 22'.
  2. Dry haul-out area around each pool composed of epoxy coated concrete. The extents of the pen enclosure will have short CMU block walls with a chain link upper portion to 8 ft.
  3. Shade structures will be over each area to provide coverage for 50% of each pen.
  4. Solid barriers to prevent lines of sight and noise will be installed to prevent the animals from being habituated to people.
  5. Chain link fencing and access gates will be installed along the perimeter.
  6. Modular buildings, either with a perimeter grade beam, concrete pier or stem wall foundation, will be brought on site for food preparation, office and laboratory.

         a. One 480 sq. ft. building as a laboratory, with office and restroom.

         b. One 1445 sq. ft. building with food preparation, office space, restroom, and storage.

Utilities and other considerations:

  • Utility requirements (provided by local utility companies): 400 amp two pole service, 240/120 volt
  • Electricity: 5-6000 kwh/month
  • Telephone: Two lines, one fax line, T1 service
  • Freshwater: Estimated total Kgal/month 50-100 gal/day, 3Kgal/month
  • Seawater: Provided by NELHA distribution system
  • Surface seawater: Peak usage is estimated to be about 40,000 gallons per day for three pools. This may increase to 80,000 with additional pools. The average use over the year may be very much lower as there will be times when there are no animals on site.  

Capital Campaign for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Healthcare Facility

The cost to build this facility is currently estimated in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million, and operating costs are estimated at $200,000 annually for the first three years of operations (given the current economic conditions, we believe it is crucial to raise capital funds as well as a three-year operating cushion simultaneously). The Center has commenced a capital campaign to raise funds for this project, and is currently in the quiet phase of the campaign. Given the urgency to save the Hawaiian monk seal, the Center would like to begin construction in July 2010 and complete the first phase of the facility by November 2010.

The Center has a strong history of raising funds for both operational needs and capital projects. The operations of the Center, and its $5.3 million annual budget, are supported primarily (~80%) by private contributions, in great part comprised of contributions from the Center's more than 30,000 members. Significantly, the Center has raised over $29 million towards the completion of a $32 million capital campaign for its new facility in Sausalito. Phase I of the Center's new facility was completed in January 2009, and Phase II is in progress with a completion goal date of Fall 2010.

Capital Campaign Leadership

A committee of the Center's board of directors for the Hawaiian monk seal healthcare facility is in the process of formation, and this committee will provide leadership for the capital campaign for the planned facility. The committee will be comprised of the Center's Executive Director, Dr. Jeff Boehm, members of the Center's board of directors, as well as philanthropic and civic leaders from Hawaii and from the Center's national base of major donors. The committee will be staffed by Dr. Frances Gulland, Director of Veterinary Science and Mecca Nelson, Director of Development.

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