In the midst of politicians sniping at each other, protesters criticizing the government, rappers getting arrested, and celebrities having babies, one profoundly significant event took place recently, that only a few people took notice of. Federal officials confirmed what biologists have long suspected: The Caribbean monk seal is now extinct. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service said that the species is the only seal to ever become extinct because of human interference.
Humans hunted the docile creatures for decades for food and blubber, leaving the population unsustainable. Biologists warn that the Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals too could be on their way to extinction for the same reasons. The Hawaiian monk seal population is protected by NOAA, but still, their numbers are declining at a rate of about 4% a year. If the population falls beneath 1,000 in the next several years, the mammal will be placed among the world's most endangered marine species. The Caribbean monk seal was given that designation in 1967. The last confirmed sighting of one was in 1952 between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
This creature was first discovered during the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1494, and their population at that time was more than a quarter of a million. But because they were docile creatures who often rested, gave birth, or nursed their young on beaches, they were easy prey for hunters and trappers.
"We hope we've learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals, and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiin and Mediterranean relatives," said Kyle Baker, a biologist for NOAA's Fisheries Service. "When populations get very small, they become very unstable," Baker said. "They become more vulnerable to threats like disease and predation by sharks."
Monk seals are especially sensitive to encroachment by humans. Over the past few decades, the creatures have been steadily losing their food supply and habitats. "Once Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean were teeming with fish, but these are areas under severe fishing pressure," says 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."
For over two centuries, monk seals were killed mainly for their blubber, which was then processed into oils used to lubricate the bottoms of boats. People used their skins for clothing, bags, belts, coats, and suitcase linings.
NOAA says there are fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals and 500 Mediterranean ones remaining. According to Cornish, the vanishing of the Caribbean monk seal is 'a wake-up call' to focus on protecting the remaining populations of various seal families. "We must act now to reduce threats to existing monk seal populations before it is too late," Cornish says. "These animals are important to the balance and health of the ocean. We can't afford to wait."