By: Kristina Bravo
One of the rarest marine mammals in the world is so sick and endangered, it’s about to get its own hospital. The Marine Mammal Center, a Sausalito, Calif.–based nonprofit, recently received full funding to complete a $3.2 million health center for monk seals. Located on the island of Kailua-Kona, the facility, named Ke Kai Ola, or “the healing sea,” will exclusively service the seals, an endemic species of the region.
The hospital will feature rehabilitation areas for newborn seals, pools for juveniles, a quarantine section, medical facilities, and a patient food prep kitchen. Why the special treatment? Fewer than 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals survive, and it’s believed that their population is dwindling 3 to 4 percent every year.
Besides being targeted by ocean predators, many seals get entangled in ocean trash or fishing gear. Others become victims of rising sea levels, which especially affect newborns, which can’t swim and rely on the shore. Fewer than one in five pups live past their first year. The group also suffers from low genetic diversity, in-species aggression, and disease outbreaks.
Advocacy efforts have ramped up recently, but as often happens with animal conservation attempts, controversy has erupted between concerned activists and the locals who coexist with the species. On the main islands, “monk seal responders” erect “seal protection zone” tape around the resting pinnipeds. But fishermen who belong to struggling communities see the animals as competition that threatens their livelihood. “It’s these haole, as Hawaiians call white outsiders, who have the luxury of standing watch over a sleeping monk seal all day,” The New York Times reports, describing the general response of natives to monk seal advocates.
But according to Marine Mammal Center’s Jeff Boehm, it’s about reviving a diminishing group. “Every little pup, specifically a female, that we can bring to reproductive age is going to help that population,” he told LiveScience. “Every adult female that is injured or ill that we can bring back to health and get back out into the reproductive population is going to be significant.”
There will be no visiting hours for curious spectators, but the center aims to run public outreach programs to raise awareness about the imperiled species.