The Hawaiian Monk Seal population is estimated about 1,400 seals and conservationists are celebrating the slow of the species’ decline over the past decade.
In fact, the species has increased in numbers by 3 percent annually for the past three years thanks to recovery efforts, many of which have been piloted on Kauai.
“Kauai is on the forefront of many of these things as we develop these techniques,” said Charles Littnan, lead scientist with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.
Over the past 15 years, monk seals have repopulated throughout the archipelago, starting with Niihau and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and spilling east through the chain.
“Particularly once that population started taking off, it seemed like we were over on Kauai all the time,” Littnan said.
Things really took off when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration appointed Jamie Thomton as Kauai’s marine mammal response program coordinator.
“They’ve created a model that currently doesn’t exist on neighbor islands in terms of working with the community,” Littnan said.
Community groups monitor the population and distribute information to help educate people about monk seals and their activity.
“The residents, when they see a seal they know they’re supposed to call it in,” Thomton said. “The residents having state and federal partnerships, plus the 100 volunteers that are on our beaches every day, that’s huge.”
Having a state and a federal representative focused on monk seals on Kauai has been beneficial because it gives the community someone to talk to, Littnan said, “rather than the faceless government.”
“It’s critical and not a trivial piece and it’s a model that we’re hoping to get replicated,” he said. “It’s not just about response, it’s about a community that has good information.”
With a population that’s recovering, one focus that’s risen to the top is finding ways for the seal population and the human population to coexist.
“There’s potential challenges for recovered populations, for people and seals living together, but we’re lucky that we’ve got time to work on that,” Littnan said. “We can take examples that we’ve learned on Kauai and apply them so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”
One example is the boat ramp out at the baby pool in Poipu, where monk seals often haul out. Last year Thomton and his team displaced seals 20 times from that location.
“We won’t stop all boat traffic, we’ll move the seal off the boat ramp,” Thomton said. “We realize that having that many children in close proximity with several monk seals isn’t a good idea, so we continue to displace seals from there.”
Sharing information and listening to questions and concerns are the first steps to creating that “culture of coexistence,” Littnan said and the team’s newest campaign is aimed at doing just that.
They’ve dubbed 2017 “the year of the monk seal” and NOAA is focusing on hosting events to increase awareness and education about monk seals.
Some of those include hosting talk story sessions across the islands and collaborations with local businesses and non-governmental organizations.
“We’re finding neat and interesting things to do, we’re catering to different islands, and we’re getting people jazzed about monk seal recovery,” Littnan said.
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published Jan. 25, 2017. Photo by Jessica Else.