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Bill Gilmartin, a marine scientist credited with helping save the Hawaiian monk seal from extinction, received The Nature Conservancy’s Kāko‘o ‘Āina Award this past weekend at a community celebration on Hawaiʻi Island.
The award honors individuals who have provided significant and long-standing support for conservation. Kāko‘o ‘Aina means, literally, “one who supports the land.”
“Bill Gilmartin has dedicated his professional life to protecting Hawaii’s marine life and environment,” said Suzanne Case, the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi executive director. “His efforts to save the Hawaiian monk seal are an inspiration to us all. He is a true community treasure.”
Gilmartin is director of research and co-founder of the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund. He has more than 30 years of conservation experience in Hawaiʻi as a biologist and member of National Marine Fisheries Service, the Society for Marine Mammology and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Advisory Group.
Gilmartin began studying Hawaiian monk seals in 1978, investigating die-offs on Laysan Island. He worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service from 1980 until his retirement in 1995, initiating and managing the Monk Seal Recovery Team, or MSRT.
The MSRT pushed for greater measures to aid the survival of seal pups. It launched efforts in the '80s and '90s to relocate newly weaned pups, allowing them to grow and fatten in captivity before returning to the wild. In 1994, he and his team relocated 21 adult males to the main Hawaiian Islands to prevent aggressive "mobbing" behavior during breeding season that sometimes injures or kills females.
Together with fellow scientist Hannah Bernard, Gilmartin formed the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund in 1996. Their desire to support the recovery of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal—now down to about 1,000 individuals—is what initially drew the two together.
Today, the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund and the Marine Mammal Center in California have joined forces to raise $2 million to build a Hawaiian monk seal healthcare facility in Kona. The facility will provide emergency medical care to sick and injured monk seals and potentially help baby seals reach the age of 3, after which their survival rate increases to 70%.
Under Gilmartin’s direction, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund has conducted research and monitoring on the nesting activities of the endangered hawksbill sea turtle. There are fewer than 100 adult female hawksbills known to nest in all of Hawai‘i. Through conservation efforts, public awareness, beachfront lighting reductions, fence repairs, dune restoration, beach cleanups, radio and satellite telemetry, coordination of a Turtle Watch program and other activities, the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund is helping to preserve hawksbills and their nesting habitats.
The Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund also has been a leading force in efforts to remove marine debris at South Point on the Big Island. Through community clean-ups that began in 2003, they have removed more than 120 tons of marine debris along a nine-mile stretch of coastline that is a popular nesting site for the endangered hawksbill turtle and regularly visited by Hawaiian monk seals and humpback whales.
The debris consists primarily of large bundles of net, many weighing well over 1,000 pounds, which are removed and shipped to Honolulu for use in a trash-to-energy conversion plant. All other trash, including more than 2,000 bags of small plastic items collected to date, are sent to the county landfill for burial.
“Bill’s many accomplishments speak for themselves,” said Case. “We are pleased to present such a deserving individual with our Kāko‘o ‘Āina, or Supporter of the Land, award and hope that it will hold a special place in his heart.”
Dr. Sam ‘Ohu Gon, the Conservancy’s senior scientist and cultural advisor, presented Gilmartin with a kāko‘o, or staff carved from milo wood. “In Hawaiian, one who provides unfailing support is called kāko‘o, which is derived from the word, ko‘o—a brace or supporting structure that denotes strength,” he said.
The Conservancy’s Kāko‘o ‘Āina award, was established in 2006. Previous winners include Jan TenBruggencate, a 30-year science and environmental reporter with the Honolulu Advertiser; wildlife biologist and photographer Jack Jeffry; Maui biologist Art Medeiros; the east O‘ahu community group Mālama Maunalua; Molokaʻi cultural and environmental educator Penny Martin; and Kauaʻi weed warrior Katie Cassel.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.