Expedition to Support Monk Seal Research and Recovery Efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

August 3, 2016  

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette departs today on a 24-day research expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to conduct research and recovery efforts for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. This mission will inform NOAA's efforts to recover populations of the rare, protected species. Biologists with NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program annually monitor the status of monk seals at remote locations in the NWHI, study factors that are a threat to seal survival, and seek ways to help save individuals in an effort to eventually recover the species.

During its current voyage, from August 3 through August 26, 2016, the Sette will pick up teams of researchers and their equipment from five remote sites—French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. These scientists have been studying seals in remote locations for several months as part of the Program's long-running Assessment and Recovery Camps. Additionally, a small group of researchers will be deployed at Midway Atoll (where there is no season-long camp) to continue monk seal assessment and recovery activities. The scientists will also conduct seal censuses at three other sites: Nihoa Island, Mokumanamana (Necker Island), and Niʻihau Island.

These field camps are a long-established cornerstone of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, providing the foundational data and information for species recovery actions. But as conservation challenges constantly evolve, so does field research. This mission will deploy new unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to investigate remote survey techniques for rugged islands that are difficult to survey such as Nihoa and Mokumanamana. The UAS flights will also map vegetation, locate marine debris, and document the deterioration of man-made infrastructure at French Frigate Shoals. As structures and sea walls collapse, it results in entrapment hazards for the atoll's wildlife, including monk seals.

Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef, NWHI.
Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef, NWHI.
A group of seals at Nihoa Island.
A group of seals at Nihoa Island.
Weaned pup being transported to shore at Laysan Island in 2012.
Weaned pup being transported to shore at Laysan Island in 2012.

After retrieving field researchers and their equipment, the Sette will transport weaned seals from NWHI sites to The Marine Mammal Center's Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in Kona, Hawaiʻi Island. Years of data have demonstrated that pups weaning under-weight have little chance of survival. Through the partnership between NOAA monk seal scientists and The Marine Mammal Center's hospital, struggling pups get a second chance. The seal pups receive a season of rehabilitative care and then are returned to their natal sites as healthy yearlings ready to thrive.

Periodically during the expedition, 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 such as oceanic fronts.

The research mission will also provide support for several partner projects and agencies working in the NWHI. A small team of bird biologists for the American Bird Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be deployed at Laysan Island. Additionally, the Sette will pick up NOAA sea turtle biologists who have worked alongside the NOAA seal team at French Frigate Shoals.

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