By Diane Ako
A new hospital on Hawaii Island will be opening its doors to its first patients this week. But it's not of the human variety.
It's the world's premiere facility dedicated to saving endangered monk seals, which are only found in Hawaii, and one of the most endangered species in the world. The monk seal population has been in decline for several decades, and scientists say this is one of the most proactive active recovery programs of any program in the world.
Rachel Sprague, PhD is the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Coordinator from NOAA Fisheries Service. She talked to me about the first four patients. "There are two weaned pups from Pearls & Hermes Reef, and two juveniles from Midway Atoll and French Frigate Shoals."
They are all malnourished- victims of a population struggling largely because of human impact- tangled in fishing lines or injured from swallowing plastic. They've been in a prolonged decline over the last year.
Every summer, NOAA sends a group of scientists to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to monitor the population, disentangle seals, and perform a number of other recovery activities.This year they were able to identify a number of younger seals in great need of help.
Sprague explains, "Up until now we've run into a lot of seals, particularly in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, that are starving and that we think are going to die and we've had to turn our backs and walk away from them because we haven't had the facility to care for them."
Now, they will be the first patients at a new hospital in Kailua-Kona called Ke Kai Ola or The Healing Sea. It was built just to help save this species.
Sprague continues, "This is a brand new hospital built by the Marine Mammal Center out of California. This is a $3.2 million facility built by one of the premiere marine mammal rehabilitation organizations in the world, and they built it here specifically to help us with monk seal recovery."
She believes it will greatly impact the population recovery, but even so, it will be years before the seals are able to get off the endangered list.
There are 200 monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands and 900 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The seals living in the main islands are experiencing a population increase. Those living in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are seeing a population decrease. In order for the seals to make it off the federally designated endangered species list, there needs to be 2,900 seals total.
Doctors and volunters will feed the seals high protein fish shakes because the animals are malnourished and would have died if left alone. In two months the seals will be released back to their home. "What's going to be the most exciting is having them back in the wild where they belong, contributing to their species," notes Sprague.
How can you help? Scientists say if you see the seals at the beach, leave them alone. If you're fishing, properly discard any debris.
Also, NOAA has a 24-hour hotline that you can call to report an injured seal. That's 888-256-9840, or you can e-mail them at Pifsc.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about monk seals and you can help them at marinemammalcenter.org/hms.