Expedition to Support Hawaiian Monk Seal Population Assessement and Recovery Efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Underway

August 29, 2014

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is departing on a 21-day research expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. 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. 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 HMSRP researchers work out of seasonal field camps at the six major NWHI monk seal breeding locations.

During its voyage, from August 30 through September 19, 2014, the Sette will retrieve researchers and their equipment from three sites — French Frigate Shoals, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll — where the scientists have been conducting seal studies for several months, working out of field camps established earlier this summer. Field camps were also deployed at Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, and Pearl and Hermes Reef. These sites were evacuated in early August due to the threat to researchers by three hurricanes in the area: Genevieve, Iselle, and Julio. The Sette will return to these sites and recover gear that was left after the evacuation as well as conduct additional surveys and population assessment that was not able to be completed by the field teams. The ship will also support seal censuses at three other sites, Nihoa Island, Necker Island (Mokumanamana), and Niʻihau Island.

Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef, NWHI.
Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef, NWHI.

Under the direction of the expedition's Chief Scientist Jessica Lopez, 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.

At Necker and Nihoa Islands, the scientists will spend a day at each island 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. Scientists will also be checking on two remote digital cameras on Nihoa that were deployed in September, 2013 to capture photos of seals on the beach throughout the year.

A group of seals at Nihoa Island.
A group of seals at Nihoa Island.

In addition to retrieving field researchers and their equipment, the Sette will transport weaned seals from sites with a low probability of survival (Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, and French Frigate Shoals) to sites where the juvenile survival rate is much higher (Lisianski and Laysan Island). Scientists will safely capture the seals at using stretcher nets and take them to the ship in small boats. Once aboard the ship, the seals will be kept in cages on the deck. Under the direction of a veterinarian, scientists will monitor the health and behavior of the seals 24 hours 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.

Weaned pup being transported to shore at Laysan Island in 2012.
Weaned pup being transported to shore at Laysan Island in 2012.

Periodically during the project, 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 project will also provide support for several partner agencies working in the NWHI. The project will deliver supplies and personnel to a field camp operated by the State of Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife at Kure Atoll and for the American Bird Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service at Laysan Island.

 

The operating area of the research expedition spans over 1220 miles from Kure Atoll in the northwest to the island of Niʻihau in the southeast. Red markers on the interactive map above indentify the various islands and atolls where research operations will be conducted (click on a marker to display location name).