The Marine Mammal Center in Hawai‘i

Megan McGinnis is the Animal Programs Manager at The Marine Mammal’s Center’s hospital and education center in Hawai‘i, Ke Kai Ola. She manages husbandry care for endangered Hawaiian monk seal patients and oversees the Animal Care volunteer force, which is responsible for animal haul outs and educational outreach.

The Marine Mammal Center is the world’s largest marine mammal hospital and has rescued more marine mammals than any other organization in the world, covering a rescue range that spans 600 miles of California coastline and the Big Island of Hawai‘i. The Marine Mammal Center also recently announced new coverage on the Island of Maui. The Marine Mammal Center is leading the field in ocean conservation through marine mammal rescue, veterinary medicine, science, and education.

The Marine Mammal Center works only with monk seals in Hawaii, what is the significance of the monk seal population in the Hawaiian Islands?
Megan: There are only around 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals. The Marine Mammal Center recognizes the vulnerability of the monk seal population and has set up its services to increase the likelihood of survival for monks seals. There has been a recent increase in entanglement, swallowing fishing gear, injuries, and toxoplasmosis in the Main Hawaiian Island animals. This has led to a greater need for response in the Main Hawaiian Islands as well as care for the monk seals who live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Toxoplasmosis has become the leading cause of death in our monk seal populations, what is toxoplasmosis and why has it hit out monk seal population so hard?
Megan: Toxoplasmosis is a microscopic parasite that is only reproduced in the gut of cats. Any warm-blooded animal can contract toxoplasmosis and it has been seen in other Hawaiian marine mammals including spinner dolphins.

Most cats do not show any symptoms making toxoplasmosis very hard to catch. Cats excrete the parasite through their feces, and each cat can excrete millions of toxoplasmosis eggs. Current research shows that parasites can last for years outside the bodies of cats. As cat waste gets washed down towards the ocean it can contaminate fish, plants, and water. The contamination of the natural resources that monk seals rely on can lead to the seals contracting toxoplasmosis. Once contracted toxoplasmosis develops into a full body infection causing brain, organ, and muscle inflammation. Toxoplasmosis is currently the leading cause of death for Hawaiian monk seals and there have been no successful recovery cases.

What are some signs that monk seals might have toxoplasmosis?
Megan: The best indicator of toxoplasmosis in monk seals is a behavior called logging. Logging is when the animal is acting very lethargic in the water. They tend to float around not actively swimming. It is a hard behavior to spot, especially if you aren’t familiar with the specific animal’s usual behavior. It may not sound like a huge deal, but it is the biggest precursor to an animal having toxoplasmosis. People calling in abnormal monk seal behavior is always helpful, if you see anything, call it in. The Marine Mammal Center’s 24-hour Hawaiian monk seal response hotline is 808-987-0765.

How can community members help to combat toxoplasmosis and protect monk seal populations?
Megan: Toxoplasmosis is essentially a community level issue. Working to combat toxoplasmosis requires change from individuals. The most impactful action to help mitigate toxoplasmosis is keeping cats indoors and disposing of litter properly. Spaying, neutering, and homing stray cats is also hugely needed.

Calling and reporting monk seal behavior is also valuable. If you see a Hawaiian monk seal on Hawai‘i island, you can report it to The Marine Mammal Center at 808-987-0765.

How can organizations like HawaiiMERC help combat toxoplasmosis?
Megan: Organizations such as the Kohala Center have been exploring different solutions. The Kohala Center has found that planting native Hawaiian plants on the coastline can help to filter out toxins entering the water.

Helping to educate communities and provide them with the resources to identify different monk seal behavior is also very valuable. Not enough people know about toxoplasmosis. The more people who get this information, the more monk seal lives we can potentially save. Facilitating ways to increase community and government involvement is how I see this issue starting to be mitigated. Again, keeping cats indoors is the most important part of solving this problem.