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Species in the Spotlight: Hawaiian Monk Seal

2017 Year of the Monk Seal: Population Increases Over the Last 3 Years

NOAA Fisheries announces the population increase of Hawaiian monk seals. Learn more about the Year of the Monk Seal.

Watch the video above to learn what's threatening Hawaiian monk seals' existence and what you can do to help them.

Hawaiian Monk Seals 

Hawaiian Monk Seal Action Plan (PDF)


  • Monk seals are endemic to Hawaii, meaning they are native and are not found anywhere else in the world.


  • Only about 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals are left in the world and their population is much lower than historic levels. With numbers that small, the life of every seal can be measured in its impact on the population growth or decline.


  • Monk seals live in warm subtropical waters and spend two-thirds of their time at sea. They use waters surrounding atolls, islands, and areas farther offshore on reefs and submerged banks. Monk seals are also found using deepwater coral beds as foraging habitat. When on land, monk seals breed and haul-out on sand, corals, and volcanic rock. Sandy, protected beaches surrounded by shallow waters are preferred when pupping. Monk seals are often seen resting on beaches during the day.
  • Critical habitat has been designated under the ESA to include all beach areas, sand spits and islets, including all beach vegetation to its deepest extent inland, and lagoon waters out to a depth of 20 fathoms (120 ft) in designated areas of use. More information on Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat is available on NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office website.


What Can You Do?

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of 
NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight.    

The Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schaunislandi) is the last surviving species in its genus, and is endemic to the 1,500-mile-long Hawaiian Islands archipelago, from Hawaii Island to Kure Atoll.

Only about 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals are left in the world and their population is much lower than historic levels. With numbers that small, the life of every seal can be measured in its impact on the population growth or decline. Focused efforts and heightened partnerships are essential to stabilizing and preventing the extinction of the Hawaiian monk seal. There are inherent challenges to conserving and recovering the Hawaiian monk seal across such an expansive and remote area, especially with a range of ecological and anthropogenic threats affecting the population. Even so, NOAA Fisheries is better poised than ever to save Hawaiian monk seals from extinction and advance recovery.

Hawaiian monk seals face threats that include food limitations in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, especially for juveniles and sub-adults, entanglement in marine debris, and human interactions, especially in the main Hawaiian Islands. These human interactions include bycatch in fishing gear, mother-pup disturbance on beaches, and exposure to disease. Other threats to Hawaiian monk seals include loss of haul-out and pupping beaches due to erosion in Northwest Hawaiian Islands, disease outbreaks, male aggression towards females, and low genetic diversity.

Although much more work remains before the species is recovered, NOAA Fisheries and our partners have made significant headway in reducing extinction risks thus far. With more than 30 years of research and management experience with Hawaiian monk seals, NOAA Fisheries is currently working across the archipelago to address the population decline, and recovery actions are making a measurable difference: up to 30 percent of the monk seals in the population today are alive as a result of direct recovery interventions to save individual seals and allow them to have future offspring. Over this time period, the rate of monk seal population decline has been cut in half.

Saving the species starts with individual seals. Because of their value to the population growth potential, many monk seal recovery efforts focus on young and reproductive females. One example that highlights the success and impacts of these actions is R5AY, fondly known locally as Honey Girl. This seal had seven pups, six of which were also female, by the time she was 15 years old. In 2012, she was found extremely emaciated with hook-and-line entanglement damage so extensive that NOAA Fisheries needed to intervene. Through this life-saving intervention, this story has a happy ending; Honey Girl survived and went on to successfully birth two more (female) pups to date. Without the efforts of NOAA Fisheries and our partners, Honey Girl, and other seals like her, would have died and the population trend would be much worse. 

NOAA Fisheries is prepared with the plans, permits, and key stakeholder support in place to execute a new recovery initiative that is expected to reverse the species decline within 5 years. In 2014, NOAA Fisheries received a new ESA-Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) permit to implement these new and expanded recovery actions. We also have reorganized the Monk Seal Recovery Team to assist with implementation and, with their help, will release a draft Main Hawaiian Islands Monk Seal Management Plan in 2015. We will continue to work with our partners to implement priority recovery actions to accelerate monk seal recovery:

NOAA Fisheries is at a crucial juncture where continued commitment and investment in new monk seal recovery efforts will yield significant benefits for both monk seals and NOAA Fisheries stakeholders, including local fisheries and communities.  We are developing a 5-year plan of action for this species that builds on the recovery plan and details the focused efforts that are needed over the next 5 years. Through continued commitment and dedication, we can reverse population trends and increase the chances that this rare seal will survive, and future generations can enjoy and co-exist with monk seals (like R5AY Honey Girl and her pups) for years to come.

Watch our video about monk seal rehabilitation and the Ke Kai Ola marine mammal center and hospital. And, there's good news since we produced this video! NOAA Fisheries' lead Hawaiian monk seal scientist, Charles Littnan, and his team recently crunched the numbers and have found a very robust way to include more data to present a complete range-wide population estimate, driving the estimated number of Hawaiian monk seals up from 1,100 to about 1,270.