Endangered Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) have a bad reputation among some local fishermen, who accuse the 200-kilogram mammals of eating the fish that the humans catch for their livelihoods. A new project aims to find out if that notoriety is deserved and the public—in particular, teens—has a chance to participate.

The National Marine Fisheries Service's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program is about to glue a set of cameras to the backs of several seals in an attempt to learn more about their feeding patterns. A previous use of this "Crittercam" technology found that monk seals, contrary to public opinion, don't feed close to shore—where the local fishermen tend to catch fish—but actually swim far out to sea and 80 meters or more below the surface to dig up eels, octopuses and other goodies.

The cameras for the Hō'ike ā Maka ("To Reveal in the Light") project, which will look into the seals' behavior and critical habitats, have been donated by the National Geographic Society, but an additional $25,000 is needed to fund data collection. The sponsors, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Monk Seal Foundation, are looking to the public for the necessary funds. To date, about $1,500 has been collected. They hope to raise the first $7,500 by September.

Pat Wardell, president of the Monk Seal Foundation, says the group turned to crowdfunding as a way to involve the community in the research. "We didn't want it to be the type of study where a group of scientists are diligently working but yet the general public isn't aware of their research until the project is done. Instead, we wanted to create a research and outreach project where people felt as if they were committed stakeholders and were able to learn and share what's discovered throughout the three-year study."

Several community viewings of unedited Crittercam footage will be held throughout the project, allowing the public to see the behavior of monk seals underwater, but a few local teens will have an opportunity to get even closer to the research: Two Hawaiian high school students to be selected via an essay contest—entries are due July 22—will get to join the scientists in the field as they study the seals. "It will be a chance for them to not only be part of making the discoveries about the Hawaiian monk seal but also to learn about marine mammal research and conservation through firsthand experience," Wardell says.

The first batch of monk seal cameras is expected to be deployed in August.

Once plentiful throughout the Hawaiian Islands, monk seals were nearly wiped out in the 19th century for their meat, skins and oil. Today they are a conservation-dependent species with a total population of about 1,150 animals, although that number continues to drop 4 percent a year due to disease, low genetic diversity and fishing net entanglement. The species split evolutionarily from its closest relatives 15 million years ago and is considered a "living fossil." Hawaiian monk seals, along with Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus) are the only remaining members of their genus.

In other monk seal news, NOAA last week said it will take an additional six months to determine the range of critical habitat that will have to be established for the animals, a decision that would affect federal construction and other activities along thousands of square kilometers of Hawaiian coastlines. A decision was originally due on June 2.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Algal Neurotoxins Found in Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals

Photo by Brian Russo via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license