Posted by: soniahs | July 3, 2012

Crowdsourcing project: Hawaiian Monk Seals

Want to help fund some cool research in an interesting species? Here’s your chance.

Hawaiian Monk Seals, or `Īlioholoikauaua (translated as “dogs that play in the waves”), are a critically endangered and declining species that used to live throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. Today, though, they’re mainly found on the mostly uninhabited Northwest Hawaiian Islands. A relatively small number of seals are also returning to the main Hawaiian Islands, as well, but human encroachment, coastline development, and entanglement with fishing lines make their presence in populated areas more difficult.

Monachus schauinslandi (Hawaiian Monk Seal) underwater at Five Fathom Pinnacle, Hawaii. (Image: Kent Backman, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

While many members of the local community support the conservation of this native species- one of only two native Hawaiian mammals- some fishermen view the seals as competitors for fish. In the last few months, there have been several shootings and clubbings of monk seals who were resting on shore or preparing to give birth. The suspicion is that a very few subsistence fishermen, whose livelihoods are already threatened by coastal development, pollution, and existing overfishing, have been targeting the seals out of frustration. Because seals have only been returning to the main Hawaiian Islands for the last few decades, some fishermen view them as a new competitor, rather than an intrinsic part of the ecosystem that is only now recovering from near-extinction a hundred years ago.

But are the monk seals actually competitors for fish? Previous research on monk seals, using “crittercams” that are attached to the seals’ backs, shows that they actually feed much farther out to sea and deeper than the struggling fishermen. In an effort to understand more about how monk seals behave, the Monk Seal Foundation israising founds for the Hōʻike ā Maka Project:

This is the goal of the Hōʻike ā Maka Project: to understand and share images of the feeding and underwater behavior of Hawaiian monk seals, and lay to rest many of the myths and misconceptions regarding monk seals and their impact on the local marine environment and its resources.  By working with local researchers, ocean users (fishers, divers, surfers and others), students, and NGO’s, NOAA and it’s partners plan to deploy seal-borne video cameras to study how monk seals feed and use their marine habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands.  The discoveries will be critical to understanding the seals’ ecology, ensuring their continued existence, and building a culture of coexistence between man and seal.  Please be a part of this historic partnership and vital work.

National Geographic has donated several crittercams for this project, whose second (and probably more important goal) is to get the local community involved in this research. Both fishermen and local students will be involved in the project. This project could be a great way to help the community- and science- understand the monk seal, and avoid future misguided monk seal killings as the seals are seen more often on the main Hawaiian Islands.

So here’s where the crowdsourcing comes in. While the cameras have been donated, funds are still needed to conduct the research. The organization is trying to raise $25,000 for this project, of which $1,525 has been pledged as of today. To donate, visit the Hōʻike ā Maka Project’s site.

This is an interesting project, and could be a great way to help conserve the monk seal while helping the community be proud of its natural resources.


  1. I love this approach to solving a serious issue. Sonia, Thanks for sharing the information on how to make a difference.

  2. Yep- I think this type of project really has potential to get people oriented toward what the primary causes of environmental problems are. As you know, it’s usually not the point-source, “sexy” (or toothy in this case) ones that are the hardest to deal with…


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