Summer Field Season Draws to Close for Hawaiian Monk Seal Research in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

August 4, 2010
Field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands 
        support intensive monitoring and research on the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
Field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands support intensive monitoring and research on the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is at sea for 19 days on a scientific expedition to support Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) staff studying monk seals in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).

Work on the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal is being carried out by the Monk Seal Research Program, the PIFSC group responsible for monitoring the status of the seal population, conducting research to better understand factors affecting abundance of the seals, and finding ways to enhance the population's recovery. Essential to the research program are field camps at the six major monk seal breeding locations in the NWHI. The camps are occupied by researchers during the summer as bases of operations for seal monitoring and other scientific work. During its current expedition, the Sette will pick up scientists and their equipment from field camps at French Frigate Shoals, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll where seasonal studies have been completed. The vessel's crew will also exchange personnel and resupply an existing camp at Laysan Island, resupply a camp at Kure that will re-commence operations in September, and conduct surveys of seals at Mokumanamana, Nihoa Island, and Kaula Rock.

Under the direction of Chief Scientist Chad Yoshinaga, field staff and Sette personnel will load all equipment and supplies from the dismantled island camps onto the ship, materials which have supported teams of 2-4 scientists for 4 months of arduous field work. Included are tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, leftover food, small boats, and more. Everything brought ashore is removed and must be transported by hand and shuttled via small boats from the islands to the ship anchored offshore.

At Mokumanamana and Nihoa, scientists will land to conduct a beach count of seals, document tagged seals, and apply identification tags to weaned seal pups. Identifying seals with tags at Nihoa will allow researchers to assess the juvenile survival of native born seals and seals that were relocated from other sites to Nihoa in 2008 and 2009. In addition, Nihoa is the NWHI island closest to the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) and subsequent sightings of tagged seals will reveal the extent of seal movements between the NWHI and the MHI, something currently unknown.

Small boats are used to transport researchers and their 
        equipment from island field camps to the Sette waiting offshore.
Small boats are used to transport researchers and their equipment from island field camps to the Sette waiting offshore.

Besides the biological research on monk seals, scientists will conduct several other kinds of research during the cruise. Periodically, they will collect oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by taking 'CTD' measurements. At selected stations, the CTD instrument will be launched from the ship. Trailing a thin copper wire connected to computers on the ship, the instrument will measure water Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (hence the name 'CTD') as it sinks and transmit the data over the wire back to the ship. 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. Additionally, at Pearl and Hermes Reef, ship personnel will recover a High-frequency Acoustic Recording Package (HARP) from the seafloor and deploy another one in its place. These instruments are used for broad-band, long-term marine mammal monitoring. Similar HARP operations will be conducted at Kauai during the Sette's return voyage to her home port at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor.

The 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 stations at French Frigate Shoals and Midway Island and a permanent field camp at Laysan Island. The cruise will transport personnel and supplies to a field camp operated by the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife at Kure Atoll.