Species in the Spotlight

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of NOAA Fisheries’ Species in the Spotlight. This initiative is a concerted, agency-wide effort to spotlight and save the most highly at-risk marine species.

Species in the Spotlight logo.

The Hawaiian monk seal 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 Northwestern 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 the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, disease outbreaks, male aggression towards females, and low genetic diversity.

    Species Recovery

    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 this 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-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:

    • Human Dimensions of Monk Seal Recovery Implementation and Community Empowerment including working with communities and stakeholders to recover the species, institute grant programs, and integrate Native Hawaiian and other traditional resource management values and practices into the efforts.
    • Northwestern Hawaiian Island Research and Recovery Initiatives including restoring Northwestern Hawaiian Island Recovery Camps to optimal levels to maximize the number of seals benefiting from interventions and ensure robust data collection, while expanding recovery activities, and initiating critical research on the effects of climate change on monk seals.
    • Health Assessment, Monitoring, and Emerging Disease Research and Prevention including increased disease monitoring and health assessments, research on diseases and mitigation strategies, implementation of a vaccination plan to prevent disease outbreaks, and establishing a network of partners to prevent and manage the threats of disease.
    • Research, Management, and Mitigation of Human-Seal Interactions by developing a consortium of partners to mitigate seal-fisheries interactions, developing tools and strategies to address dangerous aberrant behaviors in monk seals, and implementing a multi-faceted social marketing strategy to effectively promote co-existence around monk seals.
    • Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Program Infrastructure including hiring additional staff, equipment, tools, and consumables to fully implement recovery initiatives.

    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 our 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.