The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is providing support for PIFSC research critical to the recovery of highly endangered Hawaiian monk seals

April 5, 2006

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elson Sette is at now sea in the North Pacific providing critical logistical support for scientists monitoring the status of the Hawaiian monk seal and conducting research on ways to ensure the recovery and sustainability of this highly endangered species. The ship's primary mission is to help establish and supply remote field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). These camps are the base of operations for monk seal scientists during much of the year. In ancillary projects, scientists and ship personnel aboard the Sette will conduct sighting surveys of whales and dolphins in waters along the cruise track and collect oceanographic data important to studies of climate change.

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Monk seal field camp on Lisianski Island, NWHI

The research vessel will be at sea for 12 days in support of the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), part of the Protected Species Division at NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. The primary aims of the MMRP research staff are to monitor the population status of Hawaiian monk seals, found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago, and discover ways to enhance the recovery of the species. To collect the data necessary for population monitoring and recovery research, the MMRP establishes seasonal field camps at the six major breeding locations of the monk seal throughout the NWHI.

Under the direction of Chief Scientist Chad Yoshinaga, the Sette will transport MMRP researchers to Laysan Island and Lisianski Island and deliver all the equipment and supplies they will need to support their field work over the next 4 months. Supplies for future field operations will also be offloaded at French Frigate Shoals.

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Home away from home: a field camp researcher is setting up a tent

Everything used in the field camps, including tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, food, water, clothing, and other materials must be transferred from the Sette into small boats, shuttled to the islands, and carried to the campsite. Yoshinaga and other personnel will spend one night at Lisianski Island to assist the field team in setting up camp. After bidding "aloha" to the monk seal biologists, they will reboard the Sette and transit to Laysan Island where a similar field camp will be established.

While the ship is en route between islands, MMRP biologists will systematically maintain a lookout for cetaceans and document any sightings for further study. The cetacean sighting survey is part of the PIFSC's expanding program of cetacean research in the Hawaiian Archipelago and other parts of the Pacific Islands Region.

During the cruise, the PIFSC will provide support to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) by picking up a team of USFWS biologists and contractors from Laysan Island, where the team was recently deployed to set up a hurricane-proof shelter. The USFWS maintains a year-round field camp at Laysan Island as part of their efforts to restore habitat for native vegetation and remove introduced plants from the island. The Sette will also replenish the water supply on Laysan and deliver supplies to USFWS personnel there.

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Researchers conducting CTD operation

During the Oscar Elton Sette cruise, NOAA personnel on the ship will take advantage of the opportunity to collect oceanographic data as part of NOAA's continuing mission to observe and monitor the ocean environment. NOAA is actively involved in national and global partnerships to study the Earth's ocean and atmosphere and improve our ability to understand and predict climate change. At various locations during the cruise, Sette personnel will lower a 'CTD' instrument into the water, connected to the ship by a thick cable enclosing electrical wires. As the CTD instrument sinks, it measures the water's Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (hence the name 'CTD') and transmits the information over the electrical wires back to a computer on the ship. Sette staff will also deploy several Expendable Bathythermographs (XBTs) during transit. These disposable instruments, shaped like small projectiles, contain a coil of thin copper wire and sensors that measure water temperature. XBTs are 'shot' into the water from a launch tube on the ship. During their plunge toward the sea floor, they transmit temperature data over the wire to a shipboard computer. XBT temperature-at-depth data are used by oceanographers to determine the vertical thermal structure of the ocean, including the thickness of the upper-level, mixed layer of the ocean where many important pelagic species live.