‘Emergency room’ planned for Hawaiian monk seals

HONOLULU — The Hawaiian monk seal — the nation’s most imperiled marine mammal — is on the verge of getting its own emergency room.

A California-based nonprofit with decades of experience caring for marine mammals aims to break ground next year on a hospital and rehabilitation center in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island capable of holding up to 10 monk seals at a time.

The facility would be the first such center in the islands. Right now, the only place scientists can take a monk seal needing surgery to remove a fish hook or other medical care is the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu, and it has limited space.

The project has the blessing of federal authorities desperate to save a species whose population is declining 4 percent per year and that could disappear within a century if current trends aren’t reversed.

Jeff Boehm, executive director of the Marine Mammal Center, said his Sausalito, Calif. nonprofit decided to act because no other organization was taking the lead in building such a facility.

“None of us want to be the ones who say, you know what, it was on our watch that this species went extinct. We’ve got an urgency about it and we’ve got a strong commitment to seeing this through,” Boehm said.

The center plans to build the facility on the grounds of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii because it’s right next to the Kailua-Kona airport, where seals may be flown from anywhere in the archipelago and taken quickly to the hospital. Boehm said NELHA also has a steady supply of pristine seawater pumped up from the ocean depths, which will allow the hospital to provide a clean, hygienic environment for the seals.

The Marine Mammal Center has treated some 17,000 marine mammals over the past 35 years in California, including elephant seals, sea lions, harbor seals, and dolphins. It has never hosted a monk seal, but its staff and volunteers have flown out to Hawaii to help look after monk seals needing medical care here.

For example, in 2008 the center dispatched volunteers to help watch KP2, a pup that had been abandoned by its mother on Kauai’s North Shore when it was just a day old and had to be rescued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for the fisheries service’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said the federal government has skills to take care of monk seals in the wild but it’s much more challenging to look after them in captivity. Doing so greatly taxes the federal government’s resources, he said.

He praised the techniques and strategies to save seals that the Marine Mammal Center has developed while caring for thousands of animals in California. He said the center and federal officials looking after the seals would have a natural partnership in the hospital.

“We’re trying to get ourselves in position before the emergency. There’s been a couple of times when we’ve had more than one animal at one time and it’s just exhausted us,” Littnan said. The federal government however, doesn’t expect to spend any money on the center, which is raising funds from private donations.

The Marine Mammal Center expects it will cost $3.2 million to build the hospital, which will have medical and research facilities as well as a space where visitors can learn about monk seals.

The center has raised some $700,000 so far but will need another $1 million to break ground. One fundraising effort involved entering three teams in this year’s Maui Channel Swim between Lanai and Maui’s Kaanapali Beach over Labor Day weekend.

Boehm hopes the center will break ground next year and have the hospital operational by the end of 2012.

The facility will likely have one full-time staff member and a “deep bench” of volunteers to help out, Boehm said. Annual operating expenses are expected to be in the “low six figures.”

The monk seal hospital doesn’t yet have a name. Boehm said he hopes members of the Hawaii community will guide the center in picking one.

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