HONOLULU — Monk seals and other marine mammals around the state will benefit from a $200,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The money comes through the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance grant, awarded to Hawaii conservation programs for the recovery and treatment of beached or injured marine animals.
“The funding will help two Hawaii organizations with a history in marine mammal protection to conduct research on marine mammal mortality and rehabilitate and release monk seals,” said U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, in a Friday press release.
Out of the grant, the University of Hawaii will receive $100,000 for investigating causes of death in Pacific island marine mammals.
The Marine Mammal Center will receive $98,951 for support of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Rehabilitation Program.
Jeff Boehm, executive director of The Marine Mammal Center, said the partnerships between the public and private entities are essential for monk seal conservation.
The Marine Mammal Center operates Ke Kai Ola, an animal hospital dedicated to monk seals in Kona on Hawaii Island.
“The critical funds from this award allow us to continue to rehabilitate vulnerable seals, understand health trends in the population, and enhance community involvement in recovery efforts,” Hirono said.
Ke Kai Ola’s doors opened in 2014 after The Marine Mammal Center and Hawaii Wildlife Fund raised the $3.2 million to build the facility.
Since then, the facility has treated more than 20 sick, injured and orphaned monk seals. Every one of them has been successfully returned to the wild, according to Shawn Johnson, head veterinarian at Ke Kai Ola.
Most of the Hawaiian monk seals that are admitted to Ke Kai Ola are from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and are taken back to that area for release.
The hospital has four pools and is capable of housing 10 seals at once. Staff members say the largest number of seals they’ve had at once is seven.
In August, the hospital received its 23rd patient from the beaches of Kauai, a yearling monk seal named RH38 that had a small wound and was unusually thin.
She was born on Milolii Beach on Na Pali Coast in 2016 and was the largest weaned pup on Kauai that year, according to Angela Amlin, Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Regional Office.
Tapeworms turned out to be the basis of RH38’s problem, and once she was de-wormed, the seal gained 10 pounds to reach about 45 kilos (99 pounds), and was eating regularly before she was released back into the wild.
While Ke Kai Ola is working to heal animals, UH is the only entity in the state that conducts cause-of-death investigations for stranded dolphins and whales.
Representatives said the Prescott grant has a heavy hand in funding the investigations.
“Whales and dolphins are the sentinels of ocean health, and like a canary in a coal mine, are one of our first indicators of change to Hawaii’s marine ecosystem,” said Kristi West, standing director of the UH-Manoa marine mammal program.