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Hawaiian Monk Seal Population on the Rise

May 6, 2022, 8:00 AM HST
* Updated May 6, 7:58 AM
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The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the United States. Photo: James Watt

The population of Hawaiian monk seals is on the rise after decades of decline, authorities confirmed. This year, the population surpassed 1,500 for the first time in more than 20 years.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration canceled monk seal and other research surveys in 2020. This marked an unprecedented break in 40 years of monitoring in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where most of the monk seals live.

In the summer of 2021, NOAA field teams returned to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They spent about a month and a half checking up on the monk seal population and conducting life-saving interventions. Analysis from those teams revealed the total number of monk seals throughout their entire range was 1,570 in 2021.

“That is a respectable increase since the most recent estimate of 1,435 in 2019,” NOAA stated. “It marks the first time the population has exceeded 1,500 seals in more than two decades.”

Also, despite intentional and accidental human-caused deaths of several seals in 2021, the population in the main Hawaiian Islands still continued to grow.

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From 2013 to 2021, the monk seal population grew at an average rate of 2% per year, providing hope for the species’ long-term recovery. Despite that growth, NOAA stated the population number needs to double if the Hawaiian monk seal is to be down-listed from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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NOAA did express concern over the survival of subpopulations as research shows a low survival rate among pups.

Additionally, the loss of island habitat at Lalo (French Frigate Shoals) due to climate change heightens concerns about the long-term viability of the mostly low-lying islands that monk seals inhabit throughout most of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, NOAA stated.

NOAA monk seal field teams are on their way back to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for the 2022 field season to learn more and actively engage in life-saving interventions.

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