When a large ulua hook became stuck in the left check of the Hawaiian monk seal known as RN44, it put its life in danger.
Because attached to that hook was an 18-inch line. And something like that, said Jamie Thomton, Kauai Marine Mammal Response Program coordinator, can get caught in rocks.
“Seals can drown from entanglement,” he said.
So when the two-year-old, male, Kauai-born monk seal was spotted April 3 on Waipake Beach with the large, circle hook and attached pigtail protruding from its mouth, a Kauai team went into search mode.
The seal, though, wasn’t easy to find. He was sighted a few times in the ocean, but not on shore. Finally, April 10, he was spotted at Kaakaanui (Larsen’s) Beach.
A ready and waiting crew of nearly 10 people responded. While most kept the 125-pound seal from fleeing, others used vise grips and bolt cutters to remove the leader and hook.
In all, it took about two minutes of physical restraint to free RN44 of the hook.
The operation went well, Thomton said.
“He didn’t put up much of a fight, actually,” he said.
The hook was cut so it could be removed without injuring RN44.
“It looks like the puncture will heal,” Thomton said.
The monk seal was seen later, “strong and healthy, which is good news. Officials hope RN44 stays out of further trouble.
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. The majority, about 900, reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. A smaller but growing population of about 200 seals inhabit the main Hawaiian Islands.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s goal for Hawaiian monk seals is to reach a population of 3,400 individuals — including 500 in the MHI — and maintain them for 20 years, before they could be removed from Endangered Species Act protection.
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of only two remaining monk seal species. The Mediterranean monk seal is also critically endangered, with a population of about 500. The Caribbean monk seal is extinct, last seen in 1952.
Thomton said monk seals sometimes take a baited hook.
This was the first reported this year. He encouraged fishermen to call him at NOAA if they know they hooked a monk seal so it can be found and the hook removed.
If the hook is swallowed, it can be fatal.