No Seals in Florida.. Anymore

I regularly field questions concerning wildlife native to the state of Florida. With all the invasives present in the state – especially if you lump in the non-native plants into the group – it can be hard to know just what does and doesn’t belong on this subtropical peninsula.  When it comes to seals and sea lions, we just don’t have any.  Those that do wash onto our beaches from time to time are on migratory routes into colder waters or are sick and disoriented.  Its very rare to catch such strays off Florida’s coastline, though it does occur. 

However… at one point we did have a native pinniped cruising along southern Florida and into the wider Caribbean basin.  Are you shocked?  Many people express surprise when I clue them into the story of Caribbean monk seals (Monachus tropicalis). 

And the story is.. pretty sad.  There is a somewhat unsubstantiated story that during one of his voyages Columbus sighted Caribbean monk seals in the water and sent off a small party of men to hunt them for food.  Whether or not that’s true, hunting had an enormous and immediate impact on this species.  Before anyone really knew much about their biology, distribution, life history, or basic behaviors they were extirpated from their known ranges within the Caribbean basin – including the most southern points of the Floridian peninsula.  The species was not formerly described until 1850 and was considered quite rare in its native range by 1887. 

The last known sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 off the coast of Serranilla Bank, south of Jamaica.  They were officially declared extinct in 1994 via a final aerial survey by US Fish and Wildlife and other organizations. 

Kids often ask me if its possible that somewhere in the Caribbean there is a small colony of Caribbean monk seals just waiting to be rediscovered.  Its romantic and its possible – I won’t deny it – but its an ideal that perhaps we should not trust in. 

We need to learn something from the loss of this species and all the others that have burned out in the United States in the last century.  We need to place importance on scientific evidence and knowledge about species and make research and grant availability a priority in wildlife science.  We need to pay attention to the ideas behind the word “endangered” and “threatened” and “vulnerable” and understand that these words are not the first signal in the quest to keep species alive on the planet but a final warning flag, a last breath before they may very well go under forever. 

We need to learn that unless we do something for other critically endangered American wildlife – Hawaiian monk seals, smalltooth sawfish, hawksbill sea turtles, right whales, Hawaiian tree snails, bowhead whales, red wolves, indigo snakes, the Wyoming toad, Caribbean electric rays, Pecos pupfish, Goliath grouper, and more – they will become another sad story in a long parade of mistakes and missed opportunities.