Volunteer program helps protect monk seals

HA’ENA — Resident volunteers played a big role in the rescue last week of a

Hawaiian monk seal that hauled in on Ha’ena Beach with a large fish hook

embedded at the base of her tongue.

A volunteer with the Kaua’i Monk Seals

Watch program spotted the endangered animal on the beach on April 20, closed

off the area and kept the seal from being frightened away before biologists

removed the hook the next day.

“The volunteers were diligent in setting up

the boundaries, and through public education, they were able to foster a mood

of support,” said Dr. Melissa Shaw, a Kilauea-based veterinarian who helped

found the program.

The program, established three years ago, supports the

federal government to protect the seal, a highly endangered species with an

estimated population of 1,300 to 1,400 animals.

Most Hawaiian Monk Seals

live in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, but a small number live in the main

Hawaiian Islands.

On a regular basis, program volunteers check out beaches

throughout Kaua’i to make sure seals that haul up on beaches are not bothered.

Adequate rest allows the seals to stay healthy and procreate.

The thrust of

the monk seal watch program is to sustain and enhance the seal population and

to protect its habitat.

The idea for the program came about after Shaw

made a presentation to county water safety officers on the biology and history

of the animal.

The water safety officers said they had difficulty balancing

two jobs-watching out for the safety of beachgoers and seals that came to rest

on Kaua’i beaches, Shaw said.

She proposed using volunteers, and

brainstormed that idea with Don Heacock, a state wildlife biologist based on

Kaua’i, and Jean Souza, the Kaua’i representative with the Hawaiian Islands

Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Today, the program boasts 30

volunteers, who have been schooled on the special needs of the monk

seal.

The volunteers attended meetings to learn about the biology and

natural history the animal, Shaw said. Once they are armed with enough

information, they’re sent out in the field.

More volunteers are needed.

Anyone interested is invited to attend a meeting at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the

Kilauea Lighthouse.

The volunteers are primarily tasked with helping seals

that land on beaches remain happy and healthy.

Volunteers set up boundaries

around the seal to protect them from being disturbed, Shaw said.

They

also educate beachgoers, visitors and locals on the life and biology of the

seal. By doing so, they would “have an appreciation for the seal’s presence and

respect its needs for rest,” she said.

Why is rest important for the

seals?

They spend 70 percent of their time in water, swimming and foraging

for food, Shaw said. If they can’t find a quiet beach on which to rest, it

could spell their doom.

“They can become sick and become more easily preyed

upon by sharks, because they are tired,” she said.

The Kaua’i program is

timely, Shaw said.

For reasons so far unexplained, the seal population on

the French Frigate Shoals has declined dramatically in recent years, a trend

that is being investigated by the National Marine Fisheries

Service.

Theories to explain the decline range from lack of food to

entanglement of seals in marine debris, Shaw said. Despite the problems, the

feeling among scientists is that the seal population remains stable.

More

seals appear to be hauling up on Kaua’i than on other Hawaiian islands, Shaw

said. “It could mean that there are pups being born here,” she said. “They

moved here and they are surviving better.”

Seals are territorial by nature

and stay close to the island that they were born on, she said.

A decade

ago, seals hauled up on remote beaches along the Na Pali Coast. They can now be

found at beaches, including those used by humans, in Po’ipu, Salt Pond and

Ha’ena.

Although some of the beaches might be busy with human activity, the

seals don’t seem to mind and land because they have found the beaches to be a

safe refuge, she said.

Shaw said she likes to think the program contributed

to the trend.

The seal watch program operates under the auspices of the

state Department of Land and Natural Resources and is supported by the National

Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Hawaiian

Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the Kaua’i County Water

Safety Division and residents.

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