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911 for the Life Aquatic: Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network

For dolphins, whales or seals in bad situations, Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network knows just what to do.


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Nobody knows how a Northern fur seal wound up on abeach along the North Shore last summer, but there she was, weak, emaciated, wounded by a cookie cutter shark and very lost. Fur seals inhabit places with cold water, such as the Bering Sea. As far as anyone knows, this was the first one ever seen in Hawaii.

The people who discovered it, while out on a morning walk, thought it must be a baby Hawaiian monk seal, abandoned by its mother. They called the Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Network, a non-profit group that sends volunteers to keep curious beachgoers away from Hawaii’s native seals when they haul out onto Oahu beaches. The monk seal helpers quickly noticed that this seal stood on its four flippers, which monk seals do not do, and that it had visible ears, which monk seals do not have.

The monk seal volunteers weren’t prepared to deal with a fur seal, but they knew who to call: their partners at the Hawaii Marine Mammal Response Network.

The organization serves as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s go-to guy for marine mammals in bad situations. If you encounter a monk seal with a fish hook through its cheek, a humpback whale entangled in a gill net or a dead dolphin lying on the beach, this is who you want to call.

“We’re like the 911 for monk seals, dolphins and whales,” says the Marine Mammal Response Network’s coordinator, David Schofield.

Run by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and encompassing Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the broad-based network includes scientists, nongovernmental organizations, Hawaiian cultural practitioners and hundreds of volunteers, such as fishermen, tour-boat operators and the monk seal helpers. It also includes so many different governmental organizations that Schofield carries a three-page cheat sheet into meetings so he can keep all the acronyms straight.

Schofield is no stranger to odd ocean occurrences. He’s seen a humpback whale so entangled in marine debris it was anchored to the seafloor off Haleiwa like a yacht. He’s seen a dead killer whale on Kauai and a live elephant seal on Molokai—two cold-water species whose appearances in Hawaiian waters are extremely rare. Still, the sight of a Northern fur seal hauled out on the golden sand near Sunset Beach caught him by surprise. “My first thought was, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’” he says.

With the help of the monk seal volunteers and a few bystanders he deputized to assist, Schofield corralled the seal, shooed it into a cage and drove it by pickup truck to the Honolulu Zoo. There it received food, fluids and veterinary care for its wounds. But, more importantly, at least from the standpoint of NOAA’s wildlife managers, it was quarantined.

Fur seals may carry the morbillivirus, a disease to which Hawaii’s endangered native seals have not been exposed. A large part of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s mission entails protecting monk seals, so hustling the potentially disease ridden interloper off the beach was essential.

“The fear is that an epidemic could tear through the monk seal population and devastate the species,” Schofield says.

Death by the Ton

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA has responsibility for the conservation and management of Hawaii’s dolphins, whales and seals. This includes figuring out what to do with the dead ones stranded on or floating near shore, which is one of the Marine Mammal Response Network’s many functions.

There are plenty of ways to deal with a marine mammal carcass. It might be buried in place, hauled to a landfill or towed out to sea for the sharks to enjoy. On a remote shoreline it might be left alone entirely. Sometimes the network hands off the dirty work to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which has a grant from NOAA for just such occasions. Sometimes the Coast Guard lends a hand, applying the computer drift models it uses in searching for people lost at sea to determine how far offshore to tow a dead whale so it doesn’t wash back in.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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