Tuesday | April 21, 2015
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To the rescue

Critically endangered sick, injured and young Hawaiian monk seals in need of care will soon be able to turn to the North Kona Coast for a helping hand.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital’s first phase, capable of treating a maximum 10 seals, should open in spring 2013, said Jeff Boehm, executive director for The Marine Mammal Center. Located at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority at Keahole Point, the nonprofit rescue and care facility hopes to enhance conservation efforts for the U.S. Endangered Species Act-identified species.

“In the Hawaiian islands, the endemic Hawaiian monk seal — the most imperiled pinniped in U.S. waters — there are only 1,100 animals and that number is dropping by about 4 percent per year,” he said. “In a year’s time, we will have a dedicated facility: a place to which to take these animals to care for them; to do our part in getting these animals back out into the ocean where they belong; perhaps righting a wrong that we’ve been part of in seeing this decline; and doing everything we can to restore this population of animals to a healthy number.”

Of the 1,100 seals in the Hawaiian archipelago, about 90 percent reside in the remote islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Center. In 2011, an estimated 150 to 200 monk seals resided around the main islands.

Despite efforts, the Hawaiian monk seal population has continued to decline over the last several decades for various reasons, including disease, food limitation, entanglement and predation. For reasons not yet understood, only one in five pups survives to reproductive maturity.

Boehm was unable to provide an estimate of the number of seals requiring assistance annually in the Hawaiian archipelago. He did note, however, that there are currently no dedicated facilities in the state, meaning that any seal needing help goes either to a zoo or aquarium, if there’s room, or to the mainland, or care is provided in the field.

“This is just a piece of the puzzle. It’s not going to be the fix from going extinct,” explained Kona resident Lloyd Lowry, Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team chairman. “But, each individual life you save is one you don’t have to deduct from the 1,100 we’re starting with.”

Several dozen people attended a private groundbreaking and blessing for the monk seal hospital held Saturday evening at Keahole Point. As the sun approached the horizon, the first dirt was turned, getting under way plans to have the facility’s first phase operational by spring.

The Sausalito, Calif.-based Marine Mammal Center is nearing construction of the $3.2 million rehabilitation center to treat endangered seals found in Hawaiian waters. This will be the organization’s first facility outside California.

Since 1975, The Marine Mammal Center has treated more than 17,500 marine mammals along the central and northern California coast at its facility in Marin County, Calif.

“They open up the opportunity for us to study them, advance science and teach about them. … Those animals from populations that aren’t threatened are a wonderful surrogate for us; they present a wonderful model for taking care of species that are endangered,” explained Boehm. “The only reason we can help and work with the Hawaiian monk seal with confidence and competence, is because of the number of animals that we’ve treated and learned from already.”

The Kona facility, built in two phases on state land about 150 feet inland of the shoreline, will use both warm and cold NELHA-supplied seawater. It will be located on a 2.6-acre lot north of West Hawaii Explorations Academy.

The first $1.9-million phase will include a holding facility with two 1,000-square-foot and two 300-square-foot in-ground pools that will be used to treat up to 10 seals at a time. The smaller tanks will be used to raise newborn pups and seals recovering from surgery.

“The loss rate between juveniles and 3 years old is great,” Boehm explained. “We want to do our part to help the youngsters to get a leg up and reach” reproductive maturity.

The second phase will include two support buildings that will house offices, a laboratory, clinic, prep kitchen, and a small outdoor visitor pavilion. It is expected to cost about $1.3 million. The center hopes to begin work on the second phase as soon as it wraps up the first, Boehm said, noting that depends on funds being raised.

The facility, which will not be open to the public, will be capable of an array of services, including nutritional care for sick, injured or orphaned seals and medical procedures to treat wounds and remove foreign objects. After care, the animals will be returned to the wild.

The Marine Mammal Center plans to use community volunteers for rescues of injured and sick seals in and around the Hawaiian Islands and for animal husbandry at the new hospital.

For more information on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital or to donate, visit marinemammalcenter.org/hms.