Rescue Program Helps Sustain Endangered Monk Seals at Midway Atoll

monk seal
Monk seal loaded aboard the HC-130, August 5 (USCG)

Published Aug 12, 2020 2:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Coast Guard and a Hawaii-based marine mammal conservation center recently joined forces to deliver four rehabilitated Hawaiian monk seals to Midway Atoll, where they will be released back into the wild.

“NOAA researchers rescued these four female seals as weaned pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the fall of 2019,” said Dr. Michelle Barbieri, veterinarian at Califoria-based charity The Marine Mammal Center and at NOAA Fisheries. “They had a near zero chance of survival if left in the wild, but this effort has given them a second chance.”   

The four seal pups were rescued by federal wildlife officials because of their smaller size and low likelihood of survival. They were taken to the Ke Kai Ola center on Hawaii's Big Island for rehabilitation. They spent over 10 months recovering from malnutrition and other health problems. Each of the seals saw weight gain in excess of 115 pounds - some tripling in weight - before their flight to Midway and their release into a new environment.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is located on the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, and it provides a sanctuary for millions of seabirds and over 60 Hawaiian monk seals. For more than 13 years, the collaboration between the Coast Guard, The Marine Mammal Center and NOAA has resulted in the rehabilitation and release of more than 50 Hawaiian monk seals across the archipelago. The Coast Guard usually helps out with the transport of about six marine mammals a year.

“We conduct routine flight operations and training exercises throughout the Hawaiian islands,” said Cmdr. James Morrow, a pilot with Coast Guard 14th District. “One of the Coast Guard’s core missions includes the protection of all marine life and we take pride in the opportunity to assist our partner agencies like The Marine Mammal Center and NOAA in recovery efforts of endangered animals.”

Including the small population at midway, Hawaiian monk seals are estimated to number about 1,400 individuals, about one third of their historic population. According to The Marine Mammal Center, rescue and relocation efforts have helped to slow the decline.