Fattened Up on Fish-Popcicles: How to Rehabilitate a Hawaiian Monk Seal

by Stacie Robinson

Start the day thawing and weighing out fish for the day.
Add vitamins to each seal’s first fish.
8:00am feed the seals, wash the dishes.
Entertain the animals, maybe with a sprinkler or a delicious frozen fish-cicle (but avoid focus on people).
2:00pm feed the seals, wash the dishes. Scrub pen floors. Do a lot of admin.
8:00pm feed the seals, wash the dishes.
Log each seal’s appetite and behavior into the medical records system.
Clean up and get ready for tomorrow.
Repeat… 262 times.

That’s how the dedicated staff at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea) Hawaiian monk seal rehabilitation facility made the dramatic transformation you see in Niho‘ole and other young monk seals in need.

Niho‘ole (a Hawaiian name meaning “toothless,” because he was weaned so prematurely that his teeth hadn’t even grown in yet) was in a sad state with virtually no chance of survival when NOAA field staff picked him up on Laysan Island at the end of the 2016 Assessment and Recovery Camp season last August. Now, we brought Niho‘ole back to Laysan, fat and healthy!

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Niho‘ole taking to the water after his release on Laysan Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Poor juvenile survival is one of key contributors to population decline in endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Reasons may range from pups weaning prematurely to young animals getting outcompeted for food. But the result is that when young animals fail to thrive, they can’t contribute to the population. So, since 2014, NOAA and its partners at The Marine Mammal Center have been working hard to help struggling juvenile seals through rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, in Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i Island. After rehabilitative care, the young animals are healthy and have the fat reserves to re-enter the wild population with a fighting chance.

One of several figures behind this transformative care at Ke Kai Ola is Deb Wickham, Veterinarian Technician and Operations Manager. Deb joined us on our mission aboard the NOAA Ship Sette to bring 2016’s young patients back home.

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Ke Kai Ola Operations Manager, Deb Wickham, on the Sette taking her patients back home to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

We asked Deb, “What are the big differences taking the rehab show from Ke Kai Ola to the road (or water)?” No, it’s not the round-the-clock watches to be sure the seals stay safe and comfortable on the ship’s deck. No, it’s not the amount of seal poo to be hosed down and cleaned up. The biggest difference is the challenge of getting seals to eat fish on the ship! Deb explains, “They want to eat in the water. It’s just more foreign, more difficult to get the animals to eat in a small enclosure with just a small water tub while we’re in transit.” Luckily (and by design), these seals are in great shape and can even stand to miss a meal or two if their appetite is down on the ship. Even so, this well-seasoned rehabber has some tricks up her sleeve–who wouldn’t be enticed by fish-cicles?!

Deb enjoyed her time on the ship and was very happy to get to travel full circle with these seals and see them return home! Her dream is to have more opportunities to rehabilitate more seals and get them back home in a timely manner.

FFS Deb

Healthy and home – Mea Ola and Ha‘aheo are in a pen awaiting their release at French Frigate Shoals. Ke Kai Ola’s Deb Wickham watches over her patients, excited to see them back home (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

And the work continues–no sooner are last year’s healthy rehabilitated seals dropped off, our field staff have already identified animals in need of help this year. A prematurely-weaned pup and an underweight three-year-old came home with us on the Sette and are now getting settled in at Ke Kai Ola. Deb knows it will be a challenge to get these animals in good shape in time for the return cruise this August. But at Ke Kai Ola, that’s just the sort of challenge they can handle.

Luckily Deb has a soft spot for the older seals, like our three-year-old pup. She says they always seem like the hardest cases coming in, but it’s rewarding to see how much changes as they get healthier. We look forward to seeing the turn around in these two youngsters!

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Two young seals in a pen at French Frigate Shoals, awaiting transit to Ke Kai Ola (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Hawaiian monk seals and pathogens: An ounce of prevention

by Michelle Barbieri

Ever wondered how to reboot a propane-powered refrigerator? Flipping it upside-down is actually a viable strategy. This is the latest challenge overcome by our remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands field teams in the initial stages of the summer 2017 Assessment and Recovery Camp’s monk seal vaccination program.

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Map of the Hawaiian Archipelago with the Northwest Hawaiian Islands outlined.

Getting vaccinated for us humans usually means a quick trip to the doctor. We take our pets to the vet for their “shots.” For some wildlife, rabies vaccines are distributed in bait across the continent. But what about vaccinating marine wildlife, especially those that live in remote locations and may travel hundreds of miles? The hurdles are high, the path is uncharted, and no matter how much you plan and prepare, there are going to be times when flipping refrigerators upside-down is the vital solution.

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Simple living in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – the kitchen tent at Pearl and Hermes Reef field camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s vaccination efforts began in 2016, vaccinating seals on Oahu and Kauai against morbillivirus in order to prevent an outbreak that could be catastrophic for the species. To our knowledge, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal has never suffered from a morbillivirus outbreak, but recently, researchers have found other species of morbillivirus in Hawaii and the greater Pacific region. We know the monk seals are naïve (unexposed) to morbillivirus from decades of disease surveillance in the species. While that’s a good thing, we’d like to keep it that way!  When morbillivirus outbreaks have occurred in other marine mammals, the results were rapid and deadly, killing tens of thousands of seals and dolphins in Europe and North America.  With only about 1400 left in the world, the endangered population of Hawaiian monk seals can’t take such losses.

Recently, researchers developed mathematical models to estimate how an outbreak would spread if morbillivirus were introduced, say from another seal species or a dog. The results confirmed our fears–the monk seal population could be devastated. Vaccination is a proactive way to protect the monk seal, rather than waiting until the virus shows up to treat it.

Seal Population chart

What would happen in a seal population facing a rapidly spreading morbillivirus outbreak without vaccination? The red bump shows the peak of infected seals, the green line shows the rapid accumulation of seals “removed” from the susceptible seals (either after overcoming infection or succumbing to it).

Over the last 10 years, a vaccine (made for ferrets!) was evaluated for use in captive seals, including Hawaiian monk seals. After years of testing, planning, and practice, the vaccine was given to the first wild monk seals in 2016. Each seal needs two shots, about four weeks apart. Those efforts protected most of the seals around Kauai and Oahu and represented the start of the world’s first-ever species-wide vaccination program in wild marine mammals.

Now, in 2017, we are expanding the monk seal vaccination program to protect seals in the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But launching this initiative across a span of more than 1,000 miles on remote, low-lying sandy islands and atolls is an entirely unique process with a lot of logistics to figure out. We’ve had to think of everything from propane fridges to keep vaccines cold, to min-max thermometers to monitor their temperatures in the field, to PVC pipe cases to keep sand out of syringes (which we fasten into “pole syringes”). We even modified our monk seal databases to track the vaccinated seals for the rest of their lives. We also need to vaccinate a LOT of seals to make a meaningful dent in the susceptibility of the monk seal population. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, monk seal populations are larger and denser than we’re used to in the main Hawaiian Islands. A disease would have more opportunities to jump between each seal and spread rapidly; therefore, we must vaccinate many more seals on these remote islands in order to achieve the same level of protection as the main islands.

Nihau seals

Many seals share the beach on Nihoa Island. Denser seal populations with lots of contact between animals are common in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

For nearly two months, field staff trained and practiced safely administering injections, and are now beginning to vaccinate seals. It’s just the first week of field camps and already 12 seals received vaccines. Another 25 seals have been vaccinated at Midway Atoll during short-term staff deployments. There’s still a long way to go, but we are well on our way to protecting these precious animals against a deadly outbreak.

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Vaccination mission at Laysan: Helena preps the pole syringe with a vaccine dose; Kristen sneaks up on a sleeping seal to carefully deliver a vaccine; Hope runs from another after successfully vaccinating (and surprising!) the seal. Note: a syringe on a long pole is the least intrusive way that scientists can give vaccinations to seals for their protection. It’s important to keep your distance from seals. (Photos: NOAA Fisheries)