Summer Monitoring of Hawaiian Monk Seals Underway in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

July 3, 2013
Hawaiian monk seal mother (right) and her nursing pup.
Hawaiian monk seal mother (right) and her nursing pup.

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette sailed from Honolulu on July 3, 2013, for a 21-day mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and to collect oceanographic instruments and oceanographic data. The research will support NOAA's efforts to recover the seal population and conduct biological and oceanographic assessments. The expedition is staffed by scientists from the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR) working in the Protected Species Division and Coral Reef Ecosystem Division at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Chief Scientist responsibilities will be shared by JIMAR researchers Jessie Lopez and Charles Young.

Each year, scientists in the PIFSC Monk Seal Research Program monitor the status of monk seals at remote locations in the NWHI and conduct research to better understand factors affecting abundance of the seals and ways to enhance the population's recovery. Researchers work out of seasonal field camps at the six major monk seal breeding locations in the NWHI: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll. During this summer's support voyage, the Sette will deploy researchers and their equipment at five sites: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Midway Atoll, and also conduct seal censuses at Kure Atoll, Nihoa Island and Necker Island, where no camps will be established.

To help establish monk seal field camps, cruise personnel will transport equipment and supplies from the ship to the islands. Provisions sufficient to sustain teams of 2-4 scientists at each location for 3 months are needed. Included are tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, small work boats, and more. Everything brought ashore must be transported by hand and shuttled via small boats from the ship to the islands.

Monk seal research field camp in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Monk seal research field camp in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

At Kure Atoll and Necker and Nihoa Islands, scientists will spend a day at each location counting seals, documenting tagged seals, and applying identification tags to weaned seal pups. Identifying seals at Necker and Nihoa Islands 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.

The Sette is also supporting the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) to conduct biological and oceanographic assessments at Kure Atoll and opportunistically at Pearl and Hermes Reef, Lisianski Island, and French Frigate Shoals. These efforts will help in providing scientific information needed to support ecosystem approaches to the management of coral reef systems within the Monument. The scientific knowledge gained is shared with resource managers and various public stakeholders to improve decision-making for the long-term conservation and management of coral reef resources.

Operating area for SE-13-05 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Operating area for SE-13-05 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

While the main focus of the expedition is monk seal studies and oceanographic research, periodically during the cruise, shipboard personnel will collect additional oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by deploying a CTD instrument. The data collected by the CTD 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 State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife which maintains a field station at Kure Atoll.