Hooked monk seal rescued in joint North Shore effort

HA’ENA — A Hawaiian monk seal that had a large fish hook extracted from its

tongue last week is expected to make a full recovery, biologists say.

The

wounded adult female monk seal, estimated at 450 pounds, was first spotted at

Ha’ena Beach Thursday by local residents out for a morning jog.

The quick

reactions of the residents and volunteers from the Kaua’i Monk Seal Watch

Program played a critical part in the rescue, said Dr. Melissa Shaw, a contract

veterinarian for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service .

“It was a

total team effort from everyone in the community. Everyone pulled through for

her and she just swam off into the sunset,” she said.

Upon being contacted,

Betty Unanian, the closest Watch volunteer in the area, set up a makeshift

barrier out of beachwood branches around the creature to keep it safe.

“What that did was give us time to get there,” Shaw said, “because if

anyone had come by and had not known about monk seals and wanted to get up

close and personal with the cute seal, they could have easily spooked it off

the beach.”

Unanian and other volunteers managed to keep the growing crowd

a good distance away from the seal. They stayed nearby to answer questions

about the seal from curious beachgoers and tourists while the NMFS rescue team

mustered.

Had it ventured back into the water, the animal could very well

have died, since the hook embedded at the base of its tongue would have

prevented it from eating, Shaw said.

The large, barbed circle hook was

attached to a “slider” rig, typically used by recreational fishermen to catch

ulua from shore. The line was about 20 feet and may have been cut by the

fisherman when he realized he had caught a seal.

This monk seal, who

biologists say had been born on Midway Island and was spotted several months

ago off of Molokai, was the latest of seven monk seals reported with hooks in

their mouths on Maui, O’ahu and Kaua’i since 1991.

In 1995, a juvenile

monk seal swallowed a similar hook on Kaua’i and later died.

Shaw, and two

other NMFS biologists from O’ahu, were joined by Kaua’i officials, Don Heacock,

aquatic biologist from the state Department of Land & Natural Resources,

and Tom Alexander, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department.

The team

was unable to remove the hook when the animal was first discovered last

Thursday since the valium needed to sedate the seal appeared to be spoiled,

Shaw said.

Despite the risk of the seal bolting back into the sea, she

said, she decided to play it safe.

“It was too much of a risk to inject it

in the seal, because it’s an endangered species and each life is precious. It’s

not like they are making a choice, saying, ‘OK you can do it on me.'”

The

biologists issued an appeal to the community for medication to sedate the

wounded animal. Hanalei Fire Department personnel responded, driving to Ha’ena

with 20 milligrams of valium. Unfortunately, that was a human dosage; the monk

seal required double the amount.

At the suggestion of Kenneth Pierce,

medical control officer for the fire department, Shaw went to the pharmacy at

Wilcox Memorial Hospital and wrote a prescription for valium for the 450-pound

seal.

The next morning, the team got together and tried again to rescue

the seal. The team netted the seal and sat on the seal’s shoulders and flippers

to restrain it while Shaw administered the shot with a three-inch

needle.

While the team extracted the hook, the seal was “the perfect

patient,” said Shaw. The female seal allowed Shaw and others to work in the

back of her mouth “without once twitching a muscle in an effort to snap at

us.”

Instead the seal patiently laid there with its mouth open and slack

during the operation. Occasionally, she would open one eye to take a look

around and then close it again.

So did the seal actually know they were

helping her?

“I have to wonder about that and consider it a possibility

because usually just to swab their nose, they’ll try bite you, and we were

working in her mouth in an area that was clearly traumatized and clearly

painful for a prolonged period of time and not so much as a snap.”

The hook

was embedded three inches deep and required an incision to dislodge it from the

seal’s tongue.

Once released the seal gently slipped back into the ocean,

opened her mouth and put her head down in the water and shook.

“Oh, look,

she’s rinsing,” said one of the younger onlookers.

Shaw said that given the

place of the wound and the ability of monk seals to heal very well, this seal

will probably fully recover from the injury.

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