Heading to the High Seas: Six-month mission to survey whales and dolphins in the Hawaiian Islands

July 10, 2017 (updated 8/04/2017)

Melon-headed whales surfacing off the Sette's starboard side.
Melon-headed whales surfacing off the Sette's starboard side.
A researcher photographs melon-headed whales from the Sette's bow.
A researcher photographs melon-headed whales from the Sette's bow.

The Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) departed for a six-month mission to survey whales, dolphins, and seabirds around the Hawaiian Archipelago. The mission will be aboard two NOAA Ships: the Oscar Elton Sette and Reuben Lasker.

This 187-day mission is a collaboration between the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. The first half of the expedition will be aboard the NOAA Ship Sette and the second half will be on the NOAA Ship Lasker. Our goals are to estimate numbers of whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters, examine their population structures, and better understand their habitats. The extensive study area spans the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and covers approximately 1.8 million square nautical miles.

There are four major research components: visual observations for cetaceans (including photo-identification, biopsy sampling, and satellite tagging), passive acoustic monitoring (towed hydrophone arrays and other tools), ecosystem assessments (visual surveys for seabirds and measurement of oceanographic variables), and other projects such as aerial photogrammetry using a hexacopter and testing new passive acoustic tools.

NOAA Fisheries conducted HICEAS in 2002, 2010, and we continue this large-scale survey from July to December in 2017. HICEAS 2017 also initiates a new multi-agency plan to collect species data in partnership with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The survey will provide data for several management priorities, including:

  1. Cetacean and seabird species inventory, abundance, and habitat information for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
  2. New abundance estimates for false killer whales in support of the False Killer Whale Take-Reduction Plan, as well as for all cetacean species as required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  3. Updated abundance and distribution data for large whale, sea turtle, and seabird species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
  4. New cetacean and seabird assessments to evaluate if bycatch rates in U.S. fisheries are sustainable under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Reauthorization Act.

Keep up with the HICEAS mission at www.pifsc.noaa.gov/hiceas.

Follow us on Twitter @NOAAFish_PIFSC with #HICEAS2017 and HICEAS Story Map.

Bottlenose dolphins.
Bottlenose dolphins.

*All photographs taken under research permit.