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Sick Hawaiian Monk Seal Transported to Ke Kai Ola for Further Care

February 27, 2020, 3:49 PM HST
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A Hawaiian monk seal is in stable condition at Kona’s marine mammal hospital after being captured offshore O‘ahu for appearing ill last month.

R208, also known as Pōhaku, was in the care of the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands after she was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis. The adult female monk seal was transferred by the US Coast Guard on Feb. 19 to Ke Kai Ola’s marine mammal hospital for further rehabilitation. Animal Programs manager at Ke Kai Ola Megan McGinnis said, Thursday, the monk seal is receiving treatment by an expert team of veterinarians and animal care specialists.

“Toxoplasmosis is a complex disease that requires daily management for an affected Hawaiian monk seal,” McGinnis said. “Pōhaku’s prognosis remains guarded but our team is dedicated to providing the best quality care for this endangered patient.”

This is the first patient the Center has admitted to its Kona hospital with the disease and no timetable for release has been determined.

“Along with ocean trash and sea level rise, toxoplasmosis is one of the main threats facing the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population, partly because the infection is so difficult to detect,” McGinnis said.

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Toxoplasmosis is a disease that results from infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, one of the world’s most common parasites. It is becoming increasingly clear that Hawaiian monk seals are suffering from localized lethal outbreaks of this cat-borne disease, NOAA officials stated.

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Toxoplasmosis, which spreads into the environment through cat feces, killed at least 11 monk seals in the last two decades. In 2018, three Hawaiian monk seals on Oʻahu were found dead from the disease within a single week. Now, in 2020, a cluster of two additional cases has occurred.

Shortly after NOAA rescued Pōhaku, officials say, a young male monk seal (RKC1) was found dead on the windward side of Oʻahu. Results of the postmortem examination showed that he died after being exposed to toxoplasmosis.

Personnel from the Coast Guard 14th District, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and The Marine Mammal Center partnered to transport Pōhaku from O‘ahu to Kona aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane for further treatment and rehabilitation.

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“NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office and the Coast Guard have a memorandum of understanding to assist NOAA in seal transports like this when the Coast Guard resources are available. These missions are usually flown in conjunction with training as they fall outside of Search and Rescue and Homeland Security missions”, said David Schofield, NOAA Regional Marine Mammal Response Coordinator.

Schofield added that the NOAA is grateful for the role the Coast Guard plays in Hawaiian monk seal response and conservation.

“We could not care for seals like Pōhaku if we did not have the resources, professionalism, and skills the Coast Guard brings to the table,” he said.

The Hawaiian monk seal is a critically endangered species.

The most recent annual population assessment shows that the Hawaiian monk seal has increased in numbers by 3% annually for the past three years. The population is now estimated to be around 1,400 seals—about 1,100 seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and 300 seals in the main Hawaiian Islands.

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