Penelope the Pinniped, Its a Sad Story

A Hawaiian Monk Seal

Hawaiian monk seals are currently the second most endangered marine mammal in the world.  Have you ever even heard about them?  Chances are, you haven’t.  The population hovers at just 1300 animals (some reports say 1200).  To give you an idea of just how bad this is: practically everyone knows that West Indian Manatees are an endangered species and there are currently 2,817 in the state of Florida.

How is it that some animals that are so critically endangered get so little press and awareness about their situation remains low?  In some cases, its the cute factor.  But at least Hawaiian monk seals are cute.

Let’s review the facts.  Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to Hawaii and are found nowhere else.  Like nearly all true seals they are not strongly social animals and seek out quiet undeveloped refuges and beaches to give birth and raise young and for use as haul out areas for resting in between foraging trips for fish, squid, lobster, and other ocean delicacies.

Now take a moment and consider the modern Hawaiian coastline. Its full of development and people are everywhere.  In fact in the main Hawaiian islands the population of monk seals is thought to be just one hundred animals.  The remainder of the 1200 have been pushed out of their habitat to the more remote islands, atolls, and reefs towards the northwestern corner of the volcanic island chain.

Loss of habitat is considered one of the primary concerns from this critically endangered population but entanglement is a rising problem.  Monk seals – like nearly all true seals – nurse their young for a relatively short time of six to eight weeks.  The young are then rather vulnerable to making naive and lethal mistakes when encountering gill nets, crab pots, ghost nets, and other sources of entanglement around the islands.  They also eat marine debris and are easily targeted by predators such as Galapagos sharks.

In fact, part of the Recovery Plan issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in late 2007 lists an effort to decrease shark predation near monk seal habitat by culling the sharks that took seals.  Faced with all the concerns we have in shark conservation, this seems completely unthinkable.  But in the light of a rapidly contracting population of critically endangered animals, extreme measures are sometimes all we have left.

I am a big believer in the power of photography to inspire people, its part of the reason I contribute what I can to the Marine Photobank project led by the folks at SeaWeb.  Their photos of a little Hawaiian monk seal named Penelope really drive the plight of this species home.

Penelope’s birth on Oahu in 2006 was the first birth on a main island in eight years.  Volunteers watched over her and limited contact from the public in order to encourage her mother to properly raise the pup.  After she was weaned, she was moved by NOAA officials to an offshore spot that offered more protection.  Unfortunately the little seal swam back to Oahu where she drowned in a gill net.

Penelope’s story helped to inspire support from Hawaiians for a ban on the use of monofilament-based gill nets near their typical habitat, a ban which still has not yet gone into full effect.  There is still a great deal of mystery surrounding this species.  We are not sure how far their foraging trips take them, we’re not sure whether or not there are diseases present in the population that might cause catastrophic losses in the future, we’re not sure where they stand on the point of genetic diversity and viability.  And if Hawaii cannot get a handle on habitat protection and sources of entanglement, we may never know before these gorgeous animals go extinct.


One Comment to “Penelope the Pinniped, Its a Sad Story”

  1. First off Thank you NOAA for doing something that others won’t!
    I told this story to my class for a presentation and they were absolutely touched by this story!
    So thank you!:)