4 malnourished Hawaiian monk seals taken to Kailua-Kona hospital

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KAILUA-KONA — Four malnourished Hawaiian monk seals are recovering at a Big Island hospital for the mammals after being moved from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

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KAILUA-KONA — Four malnourished Hawaiian monk seals are recovering at a Big Island hospital for the mammals after being moved from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The seals — two pups, a yearling and a 5-year-old — were all picked up by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel at the end of a recent trip to the islands.

The vessel ferried the pups to the Big Island after retrieving research teams from throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Researchers were studying seals in remote locations over a span of several months as part of Assessment and Recovery Camps.

Onboard, researchers performed physical exams and blood work for the seals.

Michelle Barbieri, a wildlife veterinary medical officer for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research program, said that while the 5-year-old is older than their “typical patients,” that seal is “much smaller and thinner than the others in her cohort.”

“She has generally declined in condition over the past two seasons, and appeared to decline even more dramatically this season,” Barbieri said.

Shawn Johnson, the Marine Mammal Center’s chief veterinarian, said biologists who work in the islands have set criteria about when to recover seals for rehabilitation.

The Marine Mammal Center is a California-based nonprofit veterinary hospital, research and educational center.

The decisions to rescue seals are based in part on the seal’s size and weight.

“As we come into the fall and winter here, if the seals — especially the recently weaned seals that are less than a year old — if they’re not a certain size coming into the winter, then (researchers) usually don’t see them the next spring,” Johnson said.

Those animals that do appear small or lightweight are the ones rescued by NOAA.

The four seals arrived at Ke Kai Ola, a healthcare facility for Hawaiian monk seals at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in Kailua-Kona Wednesday night, he said.

There are only about 1,300 Hawaiian monk seals left in the wild, Johnson said. About 1,100 of those live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Young seals, the center noted in a prepared statement, are the most vulnerable of their population. Seal pups and young seals are regular victims of entanglement with trash, food chain changes and predators.

Johnson said there’s a concerted effort to give the declining seal population the opportunity to bounce back.

“Really, the goal is to identify females, usually females, that need to survive in order for the population to grow,” Johnson said.

Johnson said without intervention, the population could fall so critically low it wouldn’t have a chance of recovering.

The facility has already rehabilitated 15 monk seals and returned them to the wild since 2014, meaning more than 1 percent of the entire Hawaiian monk seal population has come through Ke Kai Ola’s doors.

And the hospital is making a difference.

Johnson said the majority of seals released after rehabilitation have been seen again on subsequent research trips.

“I think we’re definitely having some success,” Johnson said.

And while those seals rehabilitated at Ke Kai Ola are currently too young to reproduce, Johnson said they will soon be able to have pups who could eventually have pups themselves.

That, Johnson said, will lead to a snowball effect, slowing and hopefully reversing the current population decline.

Ke Kai Ola is searching for volunteers to assist at their facility.

Operations manager Deb Wickham said there are volunteer opportunities in animal care, education and other fields. Training is provided, so no experience is required.

“Most of our people just really care about the environments and animals,” she said.

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Those interested in volunteering can contact Wickham at wickhamd@tmmc.org.

Email Cameron Miculka at cmiculka@westhawaiitoday.com.

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