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The Caribbean Monk Seal Investigation

The Seamark Trust, a charitable company, is involved with the conservation and preservation of endangered species.

Until 1995 there had been no concerted effort to establish the status of the population of the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus Tropicalis) and indeed there had been only sporadic sightings, many unconfirmed.

The population of these unique warm water seals has declined to critical levels during the twentieth century. Whilst a major effort has gone into the preservation of the endangered Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals, whose numbers are measured in hundreds rather than thousands, nothing has been done to conserve the Caribbean monk seal. The objective of the Seamark Trust is to locate and protect the remaining Caribbean monk seals.

In 1993 The Seal Specialist Group of the International Union for The Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommended that suitable monk seal habitat should be investigated. ‘In particular’, they said,’remote areas of suitable habitat along the Cuban coast (including offshore islands) should be surveyed for the species.’ It was against this background and as members of IUCN The Seamark Trust have mounted a major and on going survey of the Caribbean Sea.

For the first three seasons through a generous donation the Seamark Trust used a 44 foot (13.4m) ocean going sailing vessel of 25 ton TM.

In 1999 a 54 foot (16.3m) Irwin yacht was chartered from Tortola and used as a platform for the investigation.

The area of investigation:

Known distribution of the Caribbean monk seal since
1404

The area covered by the expedition from 1995 –9 included the south coasts of Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic and Haiti, the north east and south east coasts of Jamaica, the north coast of Haiti, Providentiales in The Turks and Caicos and a circumnavigation of Cuba including her offshore islands.

The detailed results for the period to 31st December 1997 can be seen in: Circumstancial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies by I L Boyd and M P Stanfield (Oryx vol 32 no. 4 October. 1998, PDF format)

Summery of findings 1995 - 97

The findings to date raise hope that the Caribbean monk seal classified as possibly extinct, may still survive in the West Indies. The methodology used, designed by Professor I L Boyd involved interviewing fishermen showing photographs of a variety of marine species and asking them to select those animals that they had seen whilst fishing. The majority of fishermen picked out barracuda, dolphins, sea turtles and sharks as these species are common in the areas under investigation. The manatee was also selected as it can be found in small numbers in the region. BUT 23% of the total sample also selected the monk seal, this was on a par with those selecting the manatee.
Our further questioning revealed that a fisherman may encounter a monk seal once in every five years but the fishermen most likely to have seen them were those that skin dived for fish, this leads us to believe that the monk seal is rarely seen on the surface.


Summery of findings 1999

Working with the Cuban Department of Science the east Cuba coast was surveyed in May of 1999 and fishermen were systematically interviewed.

There was no evidence that fishermen in this area had, in living memory,seen monk seals.


Interviewing in Cuba


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Scottish Charity Number SC 021578 | Copyright Seamark Trust