Monk Seal Surveys Underway in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

June 16, 2014
Small boats are used to operate nearshore and to transport people, equipment, and occasionally monk seals from the beach to the 
        Hiʻialakai offshore.
Small boats are used to operate nearshore and to transport people, equipment, and occasionally monk seals from the beach to the Hiʻialakai offshore.

The NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai sailed from Honolulu on June 16, 2014, for a 26-day mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to monitor and study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population. As part of the research, the scientific team will conduct trial aerial surveys using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). The research will support NOAA's efforts to recover the declining seal population in the NWHI. The expedition is staffed by scientists from the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR) working in the Protected Species Division of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and other partners of PIFSC. Chief Scientist of the expedition is JIMAR researcher Jessie Lopez.

Each year, scientists in the PIFSC Monk Seal Research Program monitor the status of monk seals at remote locations in the NWHI and conduct research to better understand factors affecting abundance of the seals and ways to enhance the population's recovery. Researchers work out of seasonal field camps at the six major monk seal breeding locations in the NWHI: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll. During this summer's support voyage, the Hiʻialakai will deploy researchers and their equipment at French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll. As opportunities arise, day surveys will also be conducted at Niʻihau Island, Nihoa Island and Necker Island, where no camps will be established.

While conducting monk seal surveys and related studies, researchers work and live out of tent camps.  Tents and other equipment are 
        initially transported to the beaches from the ship using small boats, then completely removed and returned to the ship at the end of 
        the field season.
While conducting monk seal surveys and related studies, researchers work and live out of tent camps. Tents and other equipment are initially transported to the beaches from the ship using small boats, then completely removed and returned to the ship at the end of the field season.
If interventions are necessary, a stretcher net will be used to safely capture and carry monk seals from shore to small boats and 
        then onto the Hiʻialakai for safe passage to the Ke Kai Ola rehabilitation facility.
If interventions are necessary, a stretcher net will be used to safely capture and carry monk seals from shore to small boats and then onto the Hiʻialakai for safe passage to the Ke Kai Ola rehabilitation facility.

To help establish monk seal field camps, cruise personnel will transport equipment and supplies from the ship to the islands. Provisions sufficient to sustain teams of 2-4 scientists at each location for 3 months are needed. Included are tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, small work boats, and more. Everything brought ashore must be transported by hand and shuttled via small boats from the ship to the islands.

In addition to delivering and retrieving field researchers and their equipment, the Hiʻialakai will capture seals requiring intervention and medical attention and transport them from the NWHI to the Ke Kai Ola facility in Kailua-Kona, on the island of Hawaii. This facility is managed by the Marine Mammal Center to rehabilitate Hawaiian monk seals. Scientists will safely capture the seals using stretcher nets and ferry them to the ship in small boats. Once aboard the ship, the seals will be kept in cages on the deck. A veterinarian, scientists and shipboard personnel will monitor the health and behavior of the seals regularly during transport to ensure the animals arrive at their destination safely and in good health. Seals will remain at Ke Kai Ola for approximately two months where they will be treated before being brought back to the NWHI and released to the wild.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems will be tested as a means to survey monk seals and other wildlife and vegetation on the NWHI, and to map 
        the location of marine debris.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems will be tested as a means to survey monk seals and other wildlife and vegetation on the NWHI, and to map the location of marine debris.

As part of the research expedition, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operations will be conducted at Niʻihau Island, Nihoa Island, Necker Island, and French Frigate Shoals. The small camera-equipped aircraft will be launched to conduct aerial surveys of protected species, seabirds and vegetation and to map marine debris. The UAS deployment is a pilot project in which NOAA is partnering with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to evaluate the effectiveness of the UAS for NWHI surveys and to develop standardized methods for data collection using the systems.