Seals, armed with cameras, may help scientists understand them


Thirty video cameras, safely worn by Hawaiian monk seals, will do more than merely give researchers and the public rare views of the lives of this endangered species over the next three years.

The collected imagery of their behaviors, feeding and use of the marine habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands will also help lay to rest misconceptions about monk seals and their impact on fisheries. Another goal is to educate and inspire the public to help develop and support real solutions to complex conservation and management issues stemming from the relatively recent return of monk seals to the main Hawaiian Islands, where they’re doing great, said Charles Littnan, lead scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

Fifteen monk seals were in the main Hawaiian Islands in 2000. Twelve years later, there are now about 200. The total population of the species is about 1,100, representing a 60 percent decline in the last 40 years, despite the recent increase on the main Hawaiian Islands. The increase on the main islands has brought some conflict with humans: hookings and other fisheries interactions have increased, and concerns have risen pertaining to human and monk seal safety, Littnan said.

During Tuesday’s ReefTalk at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority Gateway, Littnan introduced attendees to the Hoike a Maka Project, which began in August and goes until 2015. It’s a unique collaboration between local researchers, students and the community.

A variety of video cameras, including crittercams provided by the National Geographic Society, will be deployed on monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands, where the population has been increasing 6 to 7 percent annually over the last decade — a healthy growth rate. Biologists will capture the seals, tag them, conduct disease screenings, and attach cameras to their hides. The cameras are water-activated and capture 30-minute clips every two hours, Littnan said.

It typically takes about two days to fill up the camera, which the biologists then retrieve from the monk seal, he added.

Researchers plan to use the footage to answer various questions including how monk seals get their food, how often they eat, and what habitats are important, Littnan said. The cameras also collect environmental data such as depth and temprature.

Local students will help analyze the videos, and the project team is still working to establish connections with at least one high school on each island. Community members, particularly ocean users such as fishermen, are needed to participate in the fieldwork and research. This partnership will hopefully transform perceptions about monk seals, foster a better understanding of their ecology and help protect them, Littnan said.

While there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding monk seals, Littnan believes the footage, along with existing science, cultural knowledge and some logic, will help prove several assumptions untrue. Some common misconceptions are that monk seals are not from Hawaii; that “black helicopters” bring them to the main Hawaiian Islands; that monk seals eat 600 pounds of fish a day and destroy reefs when feeding; and that their population will explode.

By the beginning of next year, the partnership hopes to present video of the seals to their island communities during talk story sessions, Littnan said. Some clips were shown Tuesday.

For more information, visit monksealfoundation.org or email charles.littnan@noaa.gov.