Dramatic shifts in Hawaiian monk seal distribution predicted from divergent regional trends



Total estimated abundance of Hawaiian monk seals was just 1,161 individuals in 2008 and this number is decreasing. Most monk seals reside in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) where the decline is approximately 4%/yr, whereas relatively fewer seals currently occupy the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). It is widely accepted that the MHI population is increasing, although there are no formal estimates of total abundance, population growth rate or vital rates. This lack of information has hampered efforts to anticipate future scenarios and plan conservation measures. We present the first estimates of MHI monk seal survival and age-specific reproductive rates. Using these rates, a conservative estimate of current MHI abundance and a previously published stochastic simulation model, we estimate the MHI population growth rate and projected abundance trend. Analogous estimates for the NWHI are derived from a much richer data set. Estimated survival from weaning to age 1 yr is 77% in the MHI, much higher than recent NWHI estimates ranging from 42% to 57%. Moreover, MHI females begin reproducing at a younger age and attain higher birth rates than observed in the NWHI. The estimated MHI intrinsic rate of population growth is 1.07 compared to a 0.89–0.96 range in the NWHI. Assuming an initial abundance of 152 animals in the MHI, projections indicate that if current demographic trends continue, abundance in the NWHI and MHI will equalize in approximately 15 yr. These results underscore the imperative to mitigate the NWHI decline while devoting conservation efforts to foster population growth in the MHI, where documented threats including fishery interactions, direct killing, and disease could rapidly undo the current fragile positive trend.