Fish Steal Food From Rare Seals, Undersea Camera Shows

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(Download a map of the Hawaiian Islands.)

"Probably one of the keys to that would be the competition," George Antonelis, chief of the protected species division of the NOAA Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center, told an audience at the National Geographic Society's first symposium on Crittercams, held last month in Washington, D.C.

"Monk seals are in trouble—big trouble," Antonelis said. "This is where the Crittercam can really help."

Fewer than one in five Hawaiian monk seal pups survive to maturity, Antonelis said. In Hawaii's northwest waters, the juvenile seals must flee predator sharks and contend for food with mature jack fish that are almost as big as they are.

There are fewer potential competitors in the waters of Hawaii's main islands, and the fish there tend to avoid larger creatures like humans and seals, the scientists said.

But in the protected northwest waters, competitors such as snapper and jack fish follow the seals around.

Unlike their rivals, the seals can flip rocks and dig in the sand to turn up otherwise hidden food. The Crittercam caught the jack fish and snapper following the seals around and snatching up the prey they unearthed, especially in shallower waters.

Crittercam Insights

NOAA's Parrish stopped short of attributing the Hawaiian monk seal declines to the competitors. He said these recent findings were a factor, but more study is needed.

"It wasn't the Crittercam necessarily that gave us the answer," Parrish said, "but it gave the seals the opportunity to point us in the direction ... to take all the other tools that we have."

That story became a familiar one at the Crittercam symposium, as scientists from all over the world described their camera-facilitated discoveries about the secret lives of green turtles, whales, sharks, bears, and more. (Related news: "Leatherback Sea Turtle Mating Filmed for First Time" [February 12, 2004].)

"This is the first time we've all come together to talk about where we are, what we are, what we're thinking about, and specifically, where we want to go," said Crittercam inventor and filmmaker Greg Marshall.

Monk seal research conducted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA fisheries permits #898, #848-1335 and special-use permits #HWN0195, #HWN0196, #HWN0597, #HWN0598, #12521-02011, and #12521-02018

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