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

May 13, 2010

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is on a 23-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 the threatened green turtle. The information gained will support NOAA's efforts to recover populations of these protected species.

Hawaiian monk seals
Hawaiian monk seals.

Monk seal research is a primary focus of scientists at NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Staff of the Center'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. For several months each year, MMRP staff work out of seasonal field camps at the five major monk seal breeding locations in the NWHI. During its current voyage, the Sette will deploy researchers and their equipment at five sites where seasonal camps will be set up: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. The ship will also support seal censuses at 2 other sites, Nihoa Island and Necker Island. No camps will be established at these locations; instead, the Sette will deploy scientists in small boats to conduct work ashore.

Under the direction of Chief Scientist Chad Yoshinaga, cruise personnel will transport scientists, research 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.

Small boats will be used to transport scientists, 
        research equipment, and supplies from the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette to field camps on the remote Northwestern 
        Hawaiian Islands.
Small boats will be used to transport scientists, research equipment, and supplies from the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette to field camps on the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

At Necker and Nihoa Islands, the scientists will spend one to three days at each place counting seals, documenting seals tagged during previous visits, 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 supporting the monk seal studies, the Sette will be transporting two green sea turtle researchers to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) field station on Tern Island, part of the French Frigate Shoals atoll. The scientists will be studying adult green sea turtles as they go through their annual nesting cycle. Working in rotation out of the Tern Island station, the researchers will observe, count, and tag turtles from a temporary camp on neighboring East Island, where the majority of the nesting occurs.

During the cruise, the Sette will assist the MMRP Cetacean Research group by recovering and deploying two High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages (HARPs). HARPs are placed on the seafloor at specific locations within the Hawaiian Island chain to record sounds emitted by cetaceans in the surrounding waters, then retrieved and replaced periodically. Acoustic data collected by the HARPs will be used to continue the long-term monitoring of cetacean presence in the region.

Scientists will deploy a CTD instrument to collect data 
        on ocean temperature and salinity from the sea surface to deeper waters.
Scientists will deploy 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 to support the USFWS 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.