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Caribbean Monk Seal Extinct, U.S. Officials Declare

Jaymes Song in Honolulu, Hawaii
Associated Press
June 9, 2008
 
Federal officials in the U.S. have confirmed what biologists have long thought: The Caribbean monk seal has gone the way of the dodo.

Humans hunting the docile creatures for food, skins, and blubber left the population unsustainable, say biologists, who warn that Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals could be the next to go.

The last confirmed sighting of a wild Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 in the waters between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. (See map.)

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries Service confirmed last Friday that the species is now extinct.

(Related: "China's Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announce" [December 14, 2006].)

Kyle Baker, a biologist for the Fisheries Service southeast region, said the species is the only seal to be wiped out by human causes.

NOAA officials noted that there are fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian and 500 Mediterranean monk seals remaining, and their populations are declining.

"We hope we've learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals, and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiian and Mediterranean relatives," Baker said.

Easy Targets

The Caribbean monk seal was discovered during Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the New World in 1494.

The seals once had a population of more than 250,000, but they became easy game for hunters because they often rested, gave birth, or nursed their pups on beaches.

From the 1700s to 1900s the seals were killed mainly for their blubber, which was processed into oils, used for lubrication, and applied as a coating on the bottom of boats.

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."

Recovery Plan

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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