Technology & Science

Scientists use video cameras to save endangered seals

Hawaiian scientists have glued cameras to several monk seals in the Pacific Ocean to show the endangered animals are not devouring local fishermen's livelihood.

'Crittercams' aim to prove seals aren't a threat to fishery

This photo from the National Marine Fisheries Service shows a juvenile Hawaiian monk seal with a camera strapped to its back at French Frigate Shoals, Hawaii. The agency plans to glue smaller underwater cameras to seals in the main Hawaiian Islands to prove to fishermen the animals aren't harming their way of life. (National Marine Fisheries Service/AP)

Hawaii's monk seal sometimes gets a bad rap. But scientists are working to change that.

Some fishermen blame the endangered species for stealing their catch. There are unfounded rumours  they devour and deplete fish stocks. At least four seals have been killed by humans in Hawaii since late last year.

To help correct the misconceptions, scientists plan to glue submersible cameras onto the seals' backs. They plan to use the footage to prove to fishermen the animals are not harming their way of life.

"It's following seals to have them tell their own story," Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Service's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

Scientists expect to see the seals dive for eels and fish on the ocean floor.  The "crittercams," provided by the National Geographic Society, are the latest tactic to protect a population that is down to just 1,100 in Pacific Ocean waters around Hawaii.

Starting this August, biologists will capture several seals, sedate them and use epoxy to attach the cameras to their hides. Littnan hopes the footage will prove several assumptions untrue.

Some people think, for example, that seals operate like swarms of locusts - tough to do when there are only 200 of them in the main Hawaiian Islands. Others believe the seals eat 600 pounds of fish a day - not plausible, since an adult weighs between 375 and 500 pounds.

"That's not even remotely physically possible," Littnan said.

The researchers are inviting fishermen and budding scientists at Hawaiian high schools to join the research teams and watch the footage as it comes in. If the video proves compelling, the seals might even end up on TV.

Crittercams have changed perceptions before. When scientists first used the cameras to study Hawaiian monk seals, most believed the animals fed among coral reefs. But crittercams showed them swimming to barren sandy areas, diving to the ocean floor, flipping over rocks and eating fish and eels found underneath.

Researchers only attached cameras to seals in the northwestern Hawaiian islands that time. Seals around the main Hawaiian islands haven't been studied in the same way.

"Seeing what the animals really did rather than guessing about it was incredibly useful," said Kyler Abernathy, the National Geographic Society's remote imaging director of research.