- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - A 3-year-old monk seal has been freed of the fishing hook in its mouth after being spotted in distress on Kaena Point on Friday.

The seal known as Kaikaina was first seen around noon but researchers didn’t learn about it until later that night, reported the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (http://bit.ly/1eB5blR ). On Saturday, a six-person team that included biologists and veterinarians found Kaikaina on one of Kaena Point’s sand beaches.

The soft, sandy area made it safe for the team to remove the hook and trailing fishing line without risking injury or death to Kaikaina, said Charles Littnan, lead scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

He said the intervention “shows how rapidly we can respond when the conditions are right.” Unless it’s a life-threatening situation, researchers won’t try to subdue a hooked seal that’s hauled out on a rocky shoreline.

The careful protocol for seal rescues began eight years ago, when a female Hawaiian monk seal struck her head and died on a rocky shelf during a struggle with researchers trying to tag her at Hanauma Bay.

An adult male monk seal called Kaena wasn’t as lucky as Kaikaina when he showed up in late May with an ulua hook lodged in his lower jaw and trailing monofilament line.

Researchers opted not to remove the hook, deciding the risk was too great, said Littnan. The 9-year-old monk seal was able to shake the hook from his lip a week and a half later.

But the hook that pierced Kaikaina was lodged deeper and “probably would not have worked itself out any time soon,” Littnan said. “It would have caused a fair amount of pain.”

Kaikaina’ mother also survived a hooking injury, according to a NOAA release. In 2012, the North Shore seal known as Honey Girl had a fishing line cut through part of her tongue, said Littnan.

He said researchers found her emaciated and were able to save her life through surgery and nursing her back to health.

Since 1988, there have been 132 reported instances of monk seal hookings in the main Hawaiian Islands, with an average of 13 hookings annually over the past five years, said Littnan.

During those five years, a little more than half the seals managed to lose the hook without intervention and five died after swallowing fish hooks.

Littnan says the hooking isn’t the most critical threat to the endangered monk seal population.

Rather, he says, the top problem is that many juveniles don’t survive because the mammals have had trouble finding enough food.

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Information from: Honolulu Star-Advertiser, http://www.staradvertiser.com

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