By AUDREY McAVOY
HONOLULU — Hawaiian monk seals can’t get a break.
The animals often become entangled in abandoned fishing nets or accidentally caught on fishing hooks. As pups, they sometimes have a hard time competing with sharks and large jacks, or ulua, for food.
It’s all putting the species numbering less than 1,100 animals on course to disappear within 100 years.
This weekend, however, a California nonprofit organization is bringing good news. Today, it will break ground on a $3.2 million emergency room and hospital for the seals on the Big Island.
The Marine Mammal Center expects the facility, complete with pools, to be ready to accept injured and sick seals in the spring. The hospital is being built next to Kona International Airport for easy access for planes to fly in seals from other islands.
The facility will be able to accommodate as many as 10 seals at a time but likely will have fewer patients. Still, it’s expected to be a critical help for the struggling species.
“Every juvenile animal that we can help along to grow to be a reproductive adult in this population is extraordinarily important,” said Jeff Boehm, executive director of the Marine Mammal Center.
Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research program for monk seals, said wild animals are tough and in most cases can take care of themselves in the wild.
So officials won’t be taking monk seals to the hospital unless it’s a serious case such as abandoned or emaciated pups, or a seal that’s too sick to forage or protect itself.
The Coast Guard, Navy and private airlines have all flown seals for NOAA in the past. The agency sometimes pays private carriers to deliver the seals to medical facilities.
Littnan said the hospital gives scientists more options to save individual seals.
“This facility that is specifically for monk seal care and rehabilitation — is this critical piece of the puzzle that we’ve been lacking,” Littnan said.
The Marine Mammal Center, which has headquarters in Sausalito, Calif., has cared for close to 18,000 elephant seals, sea lions and other marine mammals in the nearly four decades it’s been operating on the mainland.
The Hawaii hospital will be unique in that it’s dedicated to just one species.
Boehm said the center has so far raised $1.9 million, or nearly 60 percent, what’s needed to pay for the construction. More than 80 percent of the center’s funds are donated by individuals, foundations, and corporations.