Researchers say the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population is on the rise. But so is the threat of a fatal virus that could wipe out the native species if it reaches Hawai‘i. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports on new efforts to prevent a future outbreak.
In case you’ve ever wondered how to vaccinate a wild Hawaiian monk seal, the first thing you’ll need is one of these. “This is a pole-syringe,” said Michelle Barbieri, holding up a 4-foot long spring loaded pole. She’s a veterinarian for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian monk seal program.
Armed with her pole-syringe, she walks me through a demonstration on an unsuspecting seal, in this case a stuffed one. “We approach them from behind because we’re aiming for the gluteal muscles,” explained Barbieri. “We have a pretty good chance of injecting there because they’re going to move away from us once they’re startled.”
The whole thing is done with a quick poke and is over in a matter of seconds. The reason Barbieri and other NOAA scientists are beginning routine vaccinations is to prepare for the possibility of morbillivirus, more commonly known to humans as measles. “That will give us what we think will give sufficient immunity to protect the population from that virus spreading like wildfire, should it be introduced into monk seals,” said Barbieri.
The virus has already killed other marine mammals around the world but, so far, hasn’t been detected in Hawaiian monk seals. Scientists like Barbieri worry it could prove fatal if it reaches the islands. “There are other seal populations primarily in Europe that have had morbillivirus outbreaks,” said Barbieri. “In those outbreak situations, tens of thousands of animals have died, so it has really made a population level impact. If you apply that rationale to monk seals, this population is really unlikely to be able to sustain.”
“We are positioning monk seals to be hopefully much more secure against this threat,” said Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. He says there are many reasons why the native species would be vulnerable to an outbreak like morbillivirus. “We know they’ve never been exposed to it, so they don’t demonstrate any immune capacity against it,” explained Littnan. “But the other big problem is that they have very low genetic variability, one monk seal is very similar to another genetically. That means that they’re all probably equally susceptible to the disease, if it kills one it’s going to kill all the others. Being prepared before it gets here is going to make all the difference in keeping the species around.”
The vaccinations are the first of its kind to be used on wild marine mammals. NOAA veterinarian Michelle Barbieri hopes programs like these will become more standard in endangered species conservation. “It is a pretty unique thing that we’re out vaccinating this endangered population preventatively,” she said. “We’re the only ones going about this type of work to save an endangered species and prevent a disease outbreak before it even starts.”
Vaccinations have already begun, starting with two monk seals last week on O‘ahu’s North Shore. NOAA plans to vaccinate up to 25 adult seals by October.