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

July 19, 2012
Hawaiian monk seal.
Hawaiian monk seal.

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is on a 23-day research expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and support research at French Frigate Shoals on the threatened green sea turtle. The information gained will support NOAA's efforts to recover populations of these protected species. As part of the field operations, scientists plan to capture weaned monk seal pups at French Frigate Shoals and relocate them to Pearl and Hermes Reef.

Monk seal research is a primary focus of scientists at NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Biologists in the Protected Species Division's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) annually monitor the status of monk seals at remote locations in the NWHI, study factors affecting abundance of the seals, and seek ways to enhance the seal population’s recovery. Many MMRP researchers work out of seasonal field camps at the six major NWHI monk seal breeding locations.

Camp breakdown involves heavy manual labor.
Camp breakdown involves heavy manual labor.
Small boats are used to transport gear from the field camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the NOAA Ship
                 Oscar Elton Sette.
Small boats are used to transport gear from the field camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

During its current voyage, from July 19 through August 7, 2012, the Sette will retrieve researchers and their equipment from six sites – French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll – where the scientists have been conducting seal studies for several weeks, working out of field camps established earlier this summer. The ship will also support seal censuses at 2 other sites, Nihoa Island and Necker Island (Mokumanamana), where no camps are established.

Under the direction of the expedition's Chief Scientist Chad Yoshinaga, mission personnel will use small boats to move equipment and supplies from the field camps to the ship, where the material will be loaded for transport back to Honolulu. Included are tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, small boats, and more.

Seals are counted and identified on the basis of unique tags applied to each seal during previous research expeditions.
Seals are counted and identified on the basis of unique tags applied to each seal during previous research expeditions.

At Necker and Nihoa Islands, the scientists will spend a day at each place counting seals, applying identification tags to weaned seal pups, and documenting seals previously tagged. Identifying seals with tags at these two NWHI locations is an important aspect of the research because 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 retrieving field researchers and their equipment, the Sette will transport weaned female seals from French Frigate Shoals, where survival of juvenile seals is low, to Pearl and Hermes Reef, where the juvenile survival rate is much higher. Scientists will safely capture the seals at French Frigate Shoals using stretcher nets and carry 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. Before releasing the seals, scientists will attach satellite tags to the animals so they can study where the seals move after they are released at their new island home. Scientists also plan to spend a few days on the island to monitor the seals' post-release behavior.

Selected seals from French Frigate Shoals will be carefully transported to their new home at Pearl and Hermes Reef. A satellite tag 
             will be glued to each seal's pelage so scientists can track its post-release movements. Selected seals from French Frigate Shoals will be carefully transported to their new home at Pearl and Hermes Reef. A satellite tag 
             will be glued to each seal's pelage so scientists can track its post-release movements.
Selected seals from French Frigate Shoals will be carefully transported to their new home at Pearl and Hermes Reef. A satellite tag will be glued to each seal's pelage so scientists can track its post-release movements.
A CTD instrument is deployed from the Sette to measure vertical profiles of ocean conductivity 
             and temperature.
A CTD instrument is deployed from the Sette to measure vertical profiles of ocean conductivity and temperature.

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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field staff at French Frigate Shoals (where an annual survey of nesting Hawaiian green turtles is conducted) and Laysan Island. The cruise will also deliver supplies to a field camp operated by the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife at Kure Atoll.