NOAA Expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Providing Vital Support for Research on Hawaiian Monk Seals and Green Turtles

May 6, 2009
Hawaiian monk seal
Hawaiian monk seal

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is on an 18-day research expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to study two highly valued components of Hawaii's marine ecosystem, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and threatened green turtle. The information gained will support NOAA's efforts to recover populations of these protected species.

Monk seal research is a primary focus of scientists at NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Staff of the Protected Species Division's Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) annually monitor the status of monk seals at remote locations in the NWHI, conduct research to better understand factors affecting abundance of the seals, and find ways to enhance population recovery. MMRP staff work out of seasonal field camps at the six major monk seal breeding locations in the NWHI. During its current voyage, the Sette will deploy researchers and their equipment at 6 sites where seasonal camps will be set up: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll. The ship will also support seal censuses at 2 other sites, Nihoa Island and Necker Island, where no camp will be established.

Small boats are used to transport gear from the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette to field camps on the 
    remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Small boats are used to transport gear from the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette to field camps on the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Under the direction of Chief Scientists Chad Yoshinaga and Jessica Lopez, cruise personnel will transport equipment and supplies from the ship to the islands, materials which will support teams of 2-4 scientists at each location for up to 4 months. Included are tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, small boats, and more. Everything brought ashore must be transported by hand and shuttled via small boats from the ship to the islands.

At Necker and Nihoa Islands, the scientists will spend a day each place counting seals, documenting tagged seals, and applying identification tags to weaned seal pups. Identifying seals with tags at these two NWHI locations is an important aspect of the research, as these islands are close to the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). Subsequent sightings of the tagged seals will provide valuable information on the extent of seal movements between the NWHI and the MHI, something currently unknown.

In addition to the monk seal studies, scientists on the Sette will release 16 juvenile captive-bred green turtles into the open ocean as part of a research project of the PIFSC Marine Turtle Research Program. The turtles, reared from hatchlings at Sea Life Park on Oahu, will be released from the ship at a pre-determined location northwest of Kauai. Three of the turtles will be outfitted with tags that will transmit the turtles' locations to a satellite, enabling scientists to follow their movements in the ocean.

Scientists deploying a CTD instrument to collect data on ocean temperature and salinity from the sea surface to deeper waters.

Periodically during the cruise, shipboard personnel will collect oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by taking CTD measurements. The data will be added to a comprehensive NOAA oceanographic database and used to better understand large-scale phenomena like climate change and the dynamics of local features like oceanic fronts.

The Sette cruise will also provide support for several partner agencies working in the NWHI. Supplies and equipment will be transported for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains field stations at French Frigate Shoals and Midway Island and a permanent field camp at Laysan Island. The cruise will also deploy a field camp operated by the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife at Kure Atoll.