As one of NOAA Fisheries’ nine Species in the Spotlight, the Hawaiian monk seal is no stranger to life-saving rescue and rehabilitation efforts by NOAA and partners. Malnourished, injured, or ill individuals head to NOAA’s facilities on Ford Island, Oʻahu or to The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola facility on Hawaiʻi Island for treatment. When hey do, one thing is always certain: The U.S. Coast Guard and their HC-130 aircraft are always ready to help with transportation if necessary.
The U.S. Coast Guard has made critical contributions to Hawaiian monk seal conservation and recovery—and been the vital transportation thread running through these concerted efforts. NOAA Fisheries has recognized U.S. Coast Guard District 14 with the prestigious Partner in the Spotlight Award.
“One of the key underpinnings of the [Species in the Spotlight] initiative was that conservation doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” Angela Amlin, NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Coordinator, said at the award ceremony held at the NOAA Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island on September 12, 2019. “We need partners in order to facilitate protected species recovery. So we want to make sure that we are acknowledging and showing our gratitude to our partners [for] their amazing contributions to monk seal recovery that have led to us seeing an increase in population for the first time in decades.”
The partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Pacific Islands Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program began in 2008. Since then, USCG District 14 has supported more than 50 transports across the Hawaiian archipelago, including the remote and uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. At the award ceremony, NOAA Fisheries’ Regional Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator David Schofield noted some of District 14’s notable achievements, including:
- A record-setting transport of seven female monk seals in one trip from Hawaiʻi Island to Oʻahu.
- The dual transport of an injured person and a male monk seal from Midway Atoll to Honolulu.
- The transport of a stake-bed truck loaded with a 4,000 pound beaked whale from Maui to Hawaiʻi Island, effectively providing both air and ground transportation support.
Mike Tosatto, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Regional Office, stressed that the ultimate goal of these collaborative conservation and recovery efforts is to eventually remove the Hawaiian monk seal from the endangered and threatened species list. But this goal wouldn’t be possible without partners who are able to bring distressed monk seals to where they need to be.
“You’ve answered that call and are always prepared to help,” Tosatto said, adding that the strong partnership between NOAA Fisheries and USCG is built through daily contact and practice. “I think [this partnership is] going to endure long into the future.”
These transportation efforts not only help save seal lives. U.S. Coast Guard pilots need to log a certain number of hours in the air per year, so these transportation efforts also contribute to the pilot training requirements. Additionally, they provide the members involved with an educational and rewarding encounter with monk seals.
It’s a very fulfilling mission when the airstation crews or crews from Sector Honolulu are “able to assist an animal that is endangered and is injured or needs treatment,” said Rear Admiral Kevin Lunday, who accepted the award on behalf of District 14.
“We don’t do it just because we’re supposed to, although that’s part of it,” Admiral Lunday said. “We do it because we’re passionate about protecting these species and other species that are endangered.”