Protecting Monk Seals

October 14, 2009
“The Mediterranean monk seals that I used to swim with as a boy are now considered one of the world's rarest marine mammals.” - Jean-Michel Cousteau

When I was young, my family and I swam in the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea using the newly invented SCUBA equipment and enjoying the abundant marine life in my front yard of Southern France. One of my fondest memories was watching Mediterranean monk seals play with each other, chase other marine life and swim by us in the underwater sea caves around Corsica, the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Back in the 1940s and 50s, these monk seals could be found sunbathing in large numbers all along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, and Northwestern Africa. Today, they exist in small numbers only found in very remote parts of their historic range.

In 2003, the Ocean Futures Society Expedition Team visited the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and we were lucky enough to dive with the only other living species of monk seal, the Hawaiian monk seal. Three nights in a row, a female monk seal #030 accompanied us on our night dives at Kure Atoll, entertaining us as she playfully danced around us. These are dives I will never forget.

The Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals are genetically different from one another and are therefore considered different species. Hawaiian monk seals reach sexual maturity between ages five and ten and prefer to live and raise young on sandy beaches, where they are protected from predators such as tiger sharks. Mediterranean monk seals reach sexual maturity at an earlier age and can give birth by age four. Reproductive rates are particularly low for the Mediterranean species, with each sexually mature female giving birth to seal pups every other year to every fourth year. This low rate of reproduction means that restoring their populations is a very slow process. Mediterranean monk seals are mostly found in sea caves, where they seek refuge from predators and many of the anthropogenic threats that put their pups at risk. Both species of monk seals feed on fishes, eels, octopus, and lobsters, and have a maximum life span of around 30 years.

Unfortunately, populations of these beautiful creatures are in a dire state and numbers are in decline. Various pressures to both species include loss of prey, habitat destruction, disease, pollution, and fishing gear entanglement. For these reasons, the former Caribbean monk seal has already gone extinct, and the Hawaiian and Mediterranean species are both listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as "Critically Endangered." The Hawaiian monk seal population consists of approximately 900 individuals and has declined by 37 percent since 1983, rendering it "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Mediterranean monk seals that I used to swim with as a boy are now considered one of the world's rarest marine mammals. They have been eradicated from most of their historic range, and only two breeding subpopulations have survived. One colony lives in the Northeastern Mediterranean Sea along the coast of Greece and the other lives in the Atlantic at Cabo Blanco, which borders the Western Sahara Desert. According to the IUCN, these two colonies support a total population of 350-450 seals.

On September 22, 2009, a monk seal pup was born in the Cablo Blanco colony. What is particularly exciting about this news is that the pup was born on an open sandy beach, which is something that hasn't happened in decades. This is a sign that conservation efforts are working. In response to declining population numbers, the governments of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mauritania developed the Action Plan for the Recovery of Mediterranean Monk Seal in the Eastern Atlantic (CMS).

One goal of this plan was to "promote the occupation of beaches as breeding and resting habitat." So over the last nine years, efforts have been focused on minimizing anthropogenic disturbances near breeding caves and surrounding beaches. In response, the monk seals have fortunately begun to recolonize these open beach areas. The birth of the monk seal pup on the open beach is a milestone for these conservation efforts and will allow managers to set new conservation goals for the future.

Similar conservation actions are being taken with the Hawaiian monk seal, and the future of both monk seal species depends on our continued efforts to protect them. You can help preserve the Hawaiian monk seals for future generations by contacting the following government leaders and asking that they continue to direct resources towards monk seal protection and conservation.

Bill Robinson
Pacific Islands Regional Administrator
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
1601 Kapiolani Boulebard, Suite 1110
Honolulu, HI 96814
(808) 944 ‐2200

Senator Daniel Inouye
722 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
(202) 224 ‐3934

Senator Daniel Akaka
141 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
(202) 224 ‐6361

Representative Neil Abercrombie
Representative from the 1st District (Honolulu)
1502 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225 ‐2726

Representative Mazie Hirono
Representative from the 2nd district
1229 Longworth HOB
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225 ‐4906

Jean-Michel Cousteau, President