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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.