Monk seal team responds to hooked seal

By Michelle Barbieri, DVM

[Dr. Michelle Barbieri is the lead of NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Health and Disease Program and a Conservation Medicine Intern for NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP).  Michelle not only leads monk seal health research and response initiatives in Hawaii but also works on a variety of whale, dolphin and seal health problems in Hawaii, Alaska, New England and the Northern Gulf of Mexico.]

March 19, 2013

I take the first bite of my lunch and my cell phone dings a new text message at me.  My body’s conditioned response to that noise, no matter how often I change the ring tone, is an immediate jump in my heart rate.  It quite often means that there is a marine mammal in need of help.

Today is no exception.  NMFS Kauai Island Coordinator Mimi Olry texts, “Found unknown juvenile female with ulua hook in mouth at Palamas, will call MMB.”  That’s me, MMB: “The Vet.”  Mimi tells me that young seals such as this one pay very infrequent visits to Kauai, and most likely reside around Niihau or remote islands where trained eyes aren’t around to notice things like hooks, entanglements or other risks to their health like disease and malnutrition.  The bottom line: we need to seize this opportunity because we may never get another.

Then I ask about the hook.  It’s a circle hook, the kind used by recreational anglers to fish for ulua, a type of jack.  We see quite a few “hooked seals” each year.  Sometimes the hooks are lodged in the lip or corner of the mouth, looking like a body piercing.  Usually those can be removed easily with tools.  Unfortunately, sometimes they are swallowed, but that’s a story for another day.

RK90

RK90, Hawaiian monk seal, with a circle hook lodged in the corner of her mouth. (photo taken under NMFS permit 932-1905, photo credit: Mimi Olry and Jamie Thomton)

Today, past experience tells Mimi that something is different about this hooking.  While it’s visible, the hook’s position indicates that it might be a bigger challenge to remove.  Mimi says, “It’s wrapped very tightly and could even involve the lower jaw bone.”  My heart rate picks up a little bit again.  I call over to my coworker Sean Guerin, an experienced field biologist from the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program that has handled and dehooked his fair share of seals.  We discuss Mimi’s observations and decide that, despite being very limited on funds for our work, we have no choice.  Sean looks up the next flight to Kauai.  Meanwhile, I gather all the veterinary gear I might need, making sure I’m prepared for the worst possible scenario (though always hoping for the best).  I also reach for a few granola bars as I think to myself, “We’re definitely going to miss dinner.”

By the time we arrive on scene, the tide is coming in and the seal has nestled herself up in the rocks.  Yet she is close to a safe, sandy, catchable spot just nearby.  Dedicated volunteers are on site and can help us make a barrier between her and the ocean.  Sean gently coerces her to toward the sandy spot.  It worked.  Moments later, Sean has a net around her and is stabilizing her head so that we can get a good look at her injury.  The hook is tightly wrapped in the soft tissues of her mouth and, as suspected, is stuck right around her jaw bone.  The barb on one end of the hook makes it impossible to pull it out.  We switch to the bolt cutters, squeeze them beneath the loosest part of the hook and snap it.  A bit more finagling and we are able to rotate it out of her mouth.

I do a quick assessment, as she is getting more stressed every minute.  Some swelling and a little bit of blood but nothing major.  I give her a shot of long-acting antibiotics.  Jamie and Mimi place tags in her flippers and a microchip under her skin (just like those used in cats and dogs).  Unidentified female, no more.  Sean gracefully lets RK90 go and she lays on the beach for a minute, bewildered by this sudden alien abduction.  We move away, out of sight, but continue to peek through the vegetation to watch her respiration rate.  Ten minutes later, she glides down the beach and into the water.  I think she looked back to make sure we weren’t following her (I don’t blame her).  I don’t mind that most of my wildlife patients dislike me.  I want them to stay wild.  And this wild seal will hopefully grow up to have pups of her own, some of which we may see from time to time, and others we may never know.

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