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Vol. 13 (1): June 2010

The world’s two remaining monk seal species: how many different ways are there of being Critically Endangered?

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

Tethys Research Institute, Milan, Italy

“Critically endangered” is the IUCN Red List category reserved for species facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild: to be exact, a probability of extinction of at least 50% within three generations, if quantitative analysis is applicable. This definition fits well the two extant species of Monachus, the Mediterranean (M. monachus) and the Hawaiian (M. schauinslandi) monk seals, both of which are faced by quite grim survival expectations. However, similarities between the condition of the two species end here, because on the basis of habitat availability, amount of disturbance, and human hostility, amongst other things, threats confronting the Hawaiian pinniped could not differ more from those of its Mediterranean relative.

Recent estimates place the remaining Hawaiian monk seal population at approximately 1,100 individuals. The species’ range spans an oceanic islands chain 2,400 km long, populated by humans only in its south-eastern corner, on the Main Hawaiian Islands. The rest of the archipelago is a 1,800 km-long garland of mostly uninhabited coral islands, reefs and atolls within the Papahānaumokuākea National Monument, where human disturbance is essentially absent, legal protection effectively enforced due to strong institutional commitment by the US – the species’ sole range state – and mind-boggling funding is allocated by the federal government to promote monk seal science, conservation and recovery.

Hawaiian monk seal
Mediterranean monk seal

Far worse at first sight appears to be the condition of Mediterranean monk seals, which do not tally to even half of their Hawaiian cousins’ numbers, and survive scattered in tiny groups over a much greater coastal area, under the jurisdiction of about two dozen different countries, many of which are part of the developing world. Habitat protection is grossly insufficient over most of its range, with too few, and in large part poorly managed, protected areas established for them. In spite of official legal protection by all range states and the European Union, such protection is basically confined to paper: seals are routinely killed wherever they exist, a crime for which nobody has ever been convicted. Worse, human disturbance in the seals’ breeding habitat continues unabated. Real commitment to the conservation of monk seals is for the most part relegated to a handful of underfunded NGOs; coherent collaboration amongst these NGOs and relevant government departments is totally lacking; and dedicated public funds remain like scattered raindrops over a parched landscape.

Based on this succinct if slightly hurried comparison between the two species, we might be tempted to presume that if there were room for only one on the Ark, our safest bet would be on the Hawaiian monk seal. Not so.

A closer look at the condition of the Hawaiian monk seal reveals that, in spite of all protection efforts, the population is decreasing at an annual rate of 4%. Very oddly, numbers seem to be growing where one would least expect it – on the densely inhabited and urbanised Main Hawaiian Islands. Although they numbered 83 individuals in a recent count, these odd apparitions on the popular beaches of the major islands can compensate only minimally for the substantive net decrease of the population. But what is threatening the survival of the Hawaiian monk seals? There is no shortage of pressure factors, either observed or presumed, affecting the species, including entanglement in discarded fishing gear and marine debris, predation by sharks on juveniles, female mortality caused by extreme male aggressiveness, and – quite surprisingly – food limitation possibly stemming from oceanographic change, competition with fisheries, competition with other predators, or all of the above. To all these one should arguably add ocean acidification and the potential loss of beach habitat due to rising sea level, both caused by global change. However, while the threats listed are real and occurring with variable intensity depending on their location within the species’ range, the impression that all these impacting factors fall short of convincingly explaining such a steep declining rate, even if all summed together, is hard to dispel. The reality is, the species is disappearing between our fingers, and in spite of the most valiant attempts by an army of top-notch marine mammalogists, nobody really understands why.

Compare the condition of Hawaiian monk seals with the parallel situation in the Mediterranean and adjacent Atlantic waters. Because no robust information exists on Mediterranean monk seals’ total numbers, it is much more difficult to detect population trends here than in Hawaii. One thing we know is that in specific areas where protection has been at least minimally effective for a while – as in Madeira, in a few areas of Greece and even in Mauritania after the big population crash of 1997 – Mediterranean monk seal numbers are demonstrating their ability to inch back upwards. As regards the remainder of their range, unfortunately not much can be said except that the bottom has already been reached; and in fact monk seals have been extirpated from much of their historical range. However, even there, it is impossible to be absolutely sure that they have disappeared entirely, or for good. Just as an example, during the last 12 months monk seals have been repeatedly sighted in areas where they were previously believed extinct, such as the northern Adriatic, and have albeit fleetingly reappeared in their old haunts in the Balearic Islands, in the Tuscan Archipelago, in Sardinia and in the Egadi Islands. It would be foolish to rest on the laurels of such timid signals, which only testify to a mere potential for recovery, rather than to recovery in its own right. But one thing is sure: although Mediterranean monk seals continue to be hanging by a thread, they are obviously willing to make a comeback if we only give them a chance; it actually looks like the species is fighting for life, tooth and nail. So it would be equally foolish to abandon our hopes now.

Furthermore, unlike the case of the Hawaiian monk seals, the two most powerful weapons in our fight to protect Monachus monachus are fully available to us; all we have to do is use them. The first is that we know beyond any possible doubt what factors are causing the seals’ decline. The second is that we know perfectly well what needs to be done to address them.

First, therefore, we should resist the pedantic temptation of making long lists of pressure factors, real and hypothetical, which may or may not threaten monk seal survival; such exercises, while perhaps academically worthy, carry dubious value in real-world management because they distract us from concentrating on the heart of the matter. Basically, Mediterranean monk seals decline because: a) they continue to be deliberately killed by people, and b) because their critical habitat, particularly during the breeding season, is being encroached by highly disruptive human presence. End of story.

So, supposing that one day we succeed in stopping the killings and effectively protecting portions of the critical habitat of a few hundred individual Mediterranean monk seals: will we then see the species reverse its decline and start recovering? I firmly believe so. Implementing such straightforward management principles certainly doesn’t require rocket scientists; more simply, it needs effective progress in public awareness combined with thorough societal involvement. With sufficient goodwill from all parties involved – politicians, bureaucrats, local authorities, fishermen, NGOs, scientists, and civil society at large – a concerted action to save the monk seal would prove successful.

The moral of this story is that it is impossible to tell as yet whether our grandchildren will still be able to enjoy the sight of either a monk seal in Hawaii or in the Mediterranean, or both, or neither. Of the two species, in spite of the present forbidding environmental conditions, I believe that the latter stands a greater chance of making it than the former. However, to achieve success in the Mediterranean we will need an act of faith in human behaviour, and here comes the tough part. As Albert Einstein once famously said, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.”

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Copyright © 2010 Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved