Once hunted into near-extinction for their meat and fur in the 19th century, only a few hundred monk seals remained when they were finally protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. Intense conservation efforts increased that population to about 1,500 in the 1980s, but the seals still face a precarious recovery. The animals frequently die from entanglement with fishing gear and their population has shrunk to about 1,100 today.
The seals still carry scars from that close call with extinction. The species has the lowest genetic diversity of any of the world’s seal species, which means they have a similarly low resistance to disease. The introduction of a virus to the ecosystem could easily wipe out the species, said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.
This is not a theoretical danger.
Around the world, seals and other marine species have experienced several mass die-offs after exposure to morbilliviruses, a group of diseases that include canine distemper and the measles.
“The destructive force of a disease is comparable to nothing,” Littnan said. “There is no reason to believe that if morbillivirus comes and gets into monk seals, and this program isn’t in place, that it will be anything less than catastrophic.”
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