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Hawaiian Monk Seals

Hawaiian monk seals are the most endangered pinniped species in the United States. Only about 1,400 of them remain.

Known to the native Hawaiians as ʻIlio-holo-i-ka-uaua, or "dog that runs in rough water," the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) is near the brink of extinction. It was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. After a period of relative stability during the 1990s, the population began to decline for several years at a rate of about 4% per year.

The decline was driven largely by poor juvenile survival with fewer than one of every five seals surviving to reproductive age (i.e., ≥ 5 years of age). Researchers believe the low survival rates of juvenile monk seals were attributed to entanglement, predation and malnutrition.

This trend has been reversed in recent years, with the most recent population assessment showing an annual increase of 3% since 2013.

The Marine Mammal Center's $3.2 million facility, named Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea), opened its doors to patients in September, 2014. Located at Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, the new hospital includes rehabilitation areas for newborn seals, larger pens and pools for juveniles, a quarantine area, as well as medical facilities and a patient food preparation kitchen. The Center's long-term goal is to conduct public outreach programs at Ke Kai Ola that will provide education about the Hawaiian monk seal and conservation efforts related to saving this critically endangered species.


"Isolated from their closest relative 15 million years ago, Hawaiian monk seals are considered a "living fossil" because of their distinct evolutionary lineage."

                                        NOAA Fisheries

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Program
The Marine Mammal Center's work to save the Hawaiian monk seal consists not only of the opening of the healthcare facility, but also 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.

In addition, an education and public outreach program throughout the Hawaiian Islands 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.

A relatively small but increasing population of seals occurs throughout the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI), from Niihau to Hawaii. In 2008, a total of 113 individual seals were identified in the MHI. As of 2016, this population is estimated to have increased to approximately 300. Moreover, juvenile survival rates in the MHI are considerably higher than in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), from Nihoa to Kure Atoll.

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 new Ke Kai Ola hospital is located on the property of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA), and will help enhance the recovery of endangered Hawaiian monk seals in three ways:

  • rehabilitation of sick and injured seals from across the archipelago,
  • supplemental feeding of undernourished seals from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and
  • the quarantine and/or holding of animals that are part of potential translocation programs.

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 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 facility.

Location of Facility
The Center built the 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.

Find out more about the Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital, including latest news and updates about patients.

For the past decade, The Marine Mammal Center has worked closely with government agencies and nonprofit organizations in Hawaii, including the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, the Pacific Islands Regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, to provide medical assistance to monk seals, often flying out veterinary teams and trained volunteers to provide hands-on medical care in make-shift facilities. Following are profiles of some of the Hawaiian monk seal patients we have treated.

© Diane Gabriel, NMFS Permit No. 932-1905-00/MA009526

Honey Girl, Hawaiian
Monk Seal

Honey Girl, also been known as R5AY from the flipper tag attached to her when she was younger, was rescued by a team from NOAA Fisheries on the North Shore of Oahu in November 2012. She was emaciated and weak, slowly starving to death because of a fishing hook lodged in her cheek.

Dr. Michelle Barbieri, conservation medicine intern with The Marine Mammal Center and the head of the NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian monk seal health and disease program, managed the clinical care of Honey Girl during her 13 days of rehabilitation at the Waikiki Aquarium.  The team provided around-the-clock care for the seal and carefully removed the hook from her cheek. Then veterinary surgeon Miles Yoshioka performed the delicate surgery needed to repair Honey Girl's damaged tongue at the Honolulu Zoo.

© NOAA, Mark Sullivan, NMFS Permit No. 932 1905

RL12, Hawaiian
Monk Seal

Hawaiian monk seal RL12 was spotted with a three-pronged spear embedded in the middle of her forehead just above her eyes. Field responders from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Service, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program and The Marine Mammal Center were dispatched to reach RL12 and remove the foreign object from her head. They carefully removed the spear, did a quick examination, and satisfied that there were no other injuries or medical issues, released her. She immediately swam away.

"NOAA and State of Hawaii officials will draw on partnerships with spearfishing clubs and other fishing groups to better understand how and why these types of incidents might occur and to disseminate guidelines aimed at reducing all types of fishery interactions with monk seals," said Jeff Walters, Marine Mammal Branch Chief, NOAA, NMFS.

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View the Hawaiian Monk Seal Historical Timeline from NOAA Fisheries.

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