Seal skins were used for trunk linings, clothing, straps, and bags.
The Caribbean seals were classified as endangered in 1967, and wildlife experts investigated several reported sightings over the past few decades. But officials determined the animals spotted were actually other seal types.
Today the related Hawaiian monk seal faces different types of human-induced challenges, including entanglement in marine debris, climate change, and coastal development.
About 80 to 100 currently live in the main Hawaiian Islands, and 1,100 make their homes in the largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which were made a marine national monument in 2006.
But the Hawaiian monk seal population is declining at a rate of about 4 percent annually, according to NOAA.
Agency experts predict the total population could fall below a thousand individuals in the next three to four years, placing the mammal among the world's most endangered marine species.
"When populations get very small, they become very unstable," Baker said. "They become more vulnerable to threats like disease and predation by sharks."
Vicki Cornish, a wildlife expert at the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, said the fate of the Caribbean monk seal is a "wake-up call" to protect the remaining seal populations.
"We must act now to reduce threats to existing monk seal populations before it's too late," she said. "These animals are important to the balance and health of the ocean. We can't afford to wait."
Monk seals are particularly sensitive to human disturbance, and the creatures have been losing their food supplies and beach habitats, officials say.
"Once [the waters around] Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean were teeming with fish, but these are areas under severe fishing pressure," Cornish said.
Biologist Bud Antonelis said NOAA's Fisheries Service has developed a recovery plan for the Hawaiian monk seal.
"But we need continued support from organizations and the public if we are to have a chance at saving it from extinction," he said. "Time is running out."
As for the Caribbean monk seal, NOAA said it is working to have the species formally declared extinct under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
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