Pōhaku, a 13-year-old female, passed away last Wednesday at the Marine Mammal Center's Ke Kai Ola facility on Hawaiʻi Island. She had been battling a parasitic disease known as toxoplasmosis.
Earlier this year, Pōhaku was taken to NOAA's Honolulu facility after displaying signs of distress at a Ko Olina lagoon. She later was found to have toxoplasmosis -- a disease caused by parasites found in the feces of cats that get into the ocean.
"For Hawaiian monk seals, this disease presents itself in a very aggressive way," said Michelle Barbieri, head of NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.
Barbieri says a majority of the seals with toxoplasmosis either die before they are brought in for treatment, or shortly after being transferred. But in Pōhaku's case, NOAA officials were able to respond quickly and help her through the initial days of being infected.
Once stabilized, Pōhaku was transferred to Kona for treatment, where she had spent the last ten weeks. That's the longest a monk seal has been treated for the disease.
Barbieri says treating a monk seal with toxoplasmosis is expensive and very labor intensive. She noted that one of the methods used to give Pōhaku medicine was orally.
"For a 500 pound animal, it's quite challenging," she said. "Especially when it's a seal that's not swimming normally, not moving normally, and is not eating on her own."
While researchers were able to learn a lot about the disease and how to improve treating toxoplamosis in monk seals, Barbieri says treating seals is not the answer.
"We need to find solutions that get the parasite out of the environment and reduce the potential for that parasite to continue to be introduced into our ecosystem," she said.
Barbieri says losing a female monk seal to the disease has a great impact on the survival of the species. Pōhaku had seven pups throughout her life, and researchers would have expected her to be able to raise more pups for several more years.