Featured Image Credit: Nature.org
By Jessica Kittel
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the week President Obama stopped by the Midway Atoll in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to announce the expansion plans for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The exact same week, NOAA researchers returned from a four-month-long population monitoring expedition with some positive observations, as well as some discouraging news.
These researchers were focused on surveying two species in particular: the Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi) and the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). Both species are of considerable importance and both are also in danger from declining populations.
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. One of only two species of monk seals, they are considered “living fossils” because of an evolutionary split from their closest living relative around 15 million years ago.
The Hawaiian monk seal is also endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. This means they are island natives and are not found anywhere else in the world, as explained by the NOAA Fisheries website. There are only 1,100 of these charismatic marine mammals left after being hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century. NOAA explains that since active monitoring began in the 1950s, their populations have been steadily dropping by roughly four percent every year.
While multiple factors could be attributed to their continued reduction, the main culprit is low juvenile survival rates. Juvenile monk seals struggle with food limitations and shark predation. It is reported that on average only one in five pups make it all the way to adulthood.
However, NOAA researchers recently reported some very encouraging news on that subject. The group that returned from the Lisianski and Kure Atoll observed that of the 52 juveniles that they were monitoring last year, all 52 were alive and well. That’s a 100% survival rate! Twenty percent to 100% in one year is a pretty staggering increase.
The researchers also noted that 159 pups were born this year, which is another statistic that shows substantial improvement from 2015 surveys.
Besides crunching the numbers, KITV explained that researchers also had another objective. A large part of the organization’s mission is to rescue injured and malnourished seals, nurse them back to health, and then ultimately release them back into the wild. They returned to the marine mammal center (Ke Kai Ola) in Kona, Hawaii with four of these struggling juveniles. One of them was even found with a two-foot long eel coming out of its nose. I bet that was comfortable.
While the monk seal group was collecting encouraging data and saving seals from eel boogers, another NOAA group was working within the French Frigate shoals, monitoring green sea turtles.
Affectionately known on the islands as “honu”, green sea turtles are the largest of all the hard-shelled sea turtles. The turtles also also have a disproportionately small head, but I wouldn’t bring that up because they might be sensitive. The “green” part of their name, which seems appropriate, is derived from the fact that they exclusively eat sea grass and algae. This herbivorous diet is thought to give them their greenish colored fat -watch out vegans, this too could be your fate.
The NOAA researchers discovered that our small-headed friend with green fat is not doing particularly well. There was a sharp decline in nesting sea turtles from last year. In 2015 they counted 492 nesting individuals, while this year they only found 88.
However, they are hesitant to claim that the overall number of “honu” is experiencing a drastic decline. This seemingly substantial drop could possibly be attributed to other factors such as climate change.
NOAA is now working away, analyzing the data they collected, and will soon be able to provide some even more specific and accurate statistics. With continued observation and care, we can only hope that next year will be a year full of promising and positive results for both species
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