A 14 year old Hawaiian monk seal is back in the water after a lifesaving surgery to remove a fishing hook he swallowed. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released RE-74, also known as Benny, after a two-week recovery period.
More than a dozen NOAA staff members gather on a sandy beach near Barber’s Point. They’re welcoming back a familiar face to these south shore waters: a monk seal named Benny.
The team hoists the cage off the back of a truck, carrying the 400-pound Hawaiian monk seal to a patch of sand. Once on the ground, the door to the cage is lifted. And the group of scientists and volunteers cheer Benny on as he quickly hauls himself toward the water.
It’s been more than two weeks since Benny was last in the ocean. In early October he was sighted off Mākua Beach with fishing line hanging out of his month. A likely sign of an encounter with a hook, said Charles Littnan, lead researcher for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Program.
"We grabbed him, put him in the cage and brought him to the regional center where we work," he said. "And we found that it was sort of our worst fears."
X-rays revealed a barbed circle fishing hook wedged deep within Benny’s stomach wall. He immediately went into surgery and has spent the past couple weeks healing and bulking up on a steady diet of 10 pounds of fish per day.
"Suturing all of that stuff up for an animal that has to swim, it's a scary situation," Littnan said. "These animals have an amazing capacity to heal, so if you can make it through the surgery you're probably in a good place."
Every year, there are about 10 to 11 seal hookings. Most of them occur on the mouth and can be removed on the beach. But with an increasing amount of hooked injuries, NOAA is urging fisherman to consider using barbless hooks.
"If it's barbless, we can go, we can grab them and the hook comes out relatively easily," said Littnan. "But with the barbed hook, you're ensuring that more trauma is going to be done."
NOAA officials are asking nearshore fisherman to go barbless for the month of November. "I do it myself," said Kurt Kawamoto from NOAA Fisheries, who is also the project manager of the Barbless Circle Hook Project. "I haven't lost a whole lot of fish, I mean, you lose fish on barbed hooks too. To me, it didn't make any difference at all in my catch rates."
But Littnan and others believe it will make a huge difference for monk seals like Benny, who’s already been injured five times by fishing hooks.
"Hopefully we will not be seeing any more hooks from Benny," said Littnan. "Because five hooks is five too many."
There are about 1300 Hawaiian monk seals, with 250 living in the main Hawaiian Islands.