Monk seal species officially deemed extinct
The Caribbean variety, related to the Hawaii mammal, is no more
The Caribbean monk seal has gone extinct.
The sea mammal had long been thought to be extinct, but the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service said yesterday it was official.
The federal agency warns that the two remaining monk seal species could be next. There are fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian and 500 Mediterranean monk seals remaining, and their populations are declining.
The last confirmed sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
The animals were native to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Biologists say humans left the population unsustainable after overhunting the docile creatures for research, food and blubber.
"Unfortunately, this led to their demise and labels the species as the only seal to go extinct from human causes," said Kyle Baker, biologist for NOAA's Fisheries Service southeast region.
The seals were first classified as endangered in 1967, and wildlife experts investigated several reported sightings over the past few decades. But officials determined they were other seal types.
NOAA said it is working to have the Caribbean monk seal removed from the endangered species list. Species are removed from the list when their populations are no longer threatened or endangered, or when they are declared extinct.
"We hope we've learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiian and Mediterranean relatives," Baker said.
The Hawaiian monk seal population, protected by NOAA, is declining at a rate of about 4 percent annually, according to NOAA. The agency predicts the population could fall below 1,000 in the next three to four years, placing the mammal among the world's most endangered marine species.
Monk seals are particularly sensitive to human disturbance. And the sea creatures have been losing their food supply and beaches, officials say.
"Once Hawaii, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean were teeming with fish, but these are areas under severe fishing pressure," said Vicki Cornish, a wildlife expert at the Ocean Conservancy. "They'll eat almost anything - shellfish or finned fish - but their food supply is waning and they're in competition with man."
The endangered Hawaiian monk seals face different types of challenges, including entanglement in marine debris, climate change and coastal development.
About 80 to 100 live in the main Hawaiian Islands and 1,100 in the largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a marine national monument.
Biologist Bud Antonelis said NOAA's Fisheries Service has developed a monk seal recovery plan for the Hawaiian monk seals.
"But we need continued support from organizations and the public if we are to have a chance at saving it from extinction," he said. "Time is running out."