Protected Species Division

Hawaiian monk seal

The Protected Species Division (PSD) conducts research supporting the recovery and sustainability of marine mammals and sea turtles in the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). Marine mammal studies involve the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and cetaceans. Marine turtle studies involve primarily the threatened Hawaiian green turtle population, but also address other species including hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback turtles. PSD research covers a broad range of topics in life history, ecology, health and disease, and demography.

The research employs several advanced technologies. Passive acoustic monitoring systems are used to detect underwater sounds produced by cetaceans and by vessels and other anthropogenic sources. Other instruments deployed concurrently record oceanographic features. Satellite-linked Geographic Positioning System (GPS) tags are attached to monk seals and turtles to track their movements and describe dive patterns. Archival electronic tags are used to obtain fine-scale dive pattern information. Fatty acid profile analysis is used to determine the diet of monk seals. Mathematical and statistical methods are used to model population dynamics and analyze data from field studies and surveys.

Protected Species Division
FY 2007

Federal 9
Total 29
Salaries and benefits 971.257 25.9
Grants 888,700 23.7
Contracts 1,210,621 32.3
Equipment 42,932 1.1
Supplies 449,897 12.0
Travel & transportation 83,315 2.2
Rent, vessel charters, and communication 95,855 2.6
Printing 4,126 0.1
Total $3,746,703

The PSD is organized into four programs:

  • The Monk Seal Research Program conducts research on the Hawaiian monk seal population with the goal of enhancing its recovery. Their work extends the length of the archipelago and includes an annual census of seal abundance and other field studies to assess population trends and demographics at the main breeding sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI); investigations of foraging ecology; monitoring and assessment of health and disease parameters; and identification of natural and human factors that may be limiting monk seal recovery.
  • The Cetacean Research Program studies populations of whales and dolphins in the central and western Pacific Ocean and involves a range of topics, including surveys of cetacean distribution, abundance and stock structure; studies of habitat use, reproduction, and mortality; and assessment of natural and anthropogenic threats. The cetacean group's research includes ship-based visual and acoustic line transect surveys, photo-identification studies, passive acoustic surveys using High-Frequency Acoustic Recording Packages (HARPs), habitat modeling, and ecosystem studies.
  • The Marine Turtle Research Program is responsible for research on the threatened Hawaii green turtle population. The research agenda is comprehensive: field studies of growth rates, mortality, and movements; long-term monitoring of abundance trends, including annual surveys of the primary nesting colony at East Island, French Frigate Shoals, in the NWHI; and the biology, etiology, and effects of fibropapilloma disease. The group also trains Pacific islanders and fishery observers in sea turtle biology and handling, collects data on fishery interactions with sea turtles, and studies the pelagic biology of sea turtles in the Pacific.
  • The Marine Turtle Assessment Program studies marine turtle population biology and stock status across the U.S. Pacific Islands Region, with a focus on areas outside the Hawaiian Archipelago. Research is conducted on a wide range of topics, including: turtle demography and population dynamics; assessment of natural and anthropogenic factors affecting turtle populations; evaluation of management strategies influencing marine turtle recovery; development of simulation models to identify data gaps, study demographic trends and design and evaluate management strategies; and a variety of other marine turtle studies. The group has explored the feasibility of working with biologists in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) to help develop monitoring programs in these areas to assess abundance and stock structure of marine turtle populations.

The PSD staff of 29 includes 9 federal employees and 20 JIMAR staff.

Key 2007 Accomplishments

  • Conducted annual NWHI monk seal population assessment
  • Conducted a workshop to develop a Collaborative Spinner Dolphin Photo ID Catalog
  • Built, installed and tested a passive acoustic array for use on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to facilitate cetacean studies
  • Completed preliminary analysis of acoustic data from a HARP deployed at Cross Seamount near the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI)
  • Integrated Hawaiian monk seal health and disease data with other monk seal data sets to enable more comprehensive analysis
  • Completed field collections of Hawaiian monk seal health and disease information in the NWHI
  • Updated the Hawaiian monk seal Unusual Mortality Plan
  • Completed the Health and Disease Investigation Plan for monk seals in the MHI
  • Expanded the volunteer network for reporting monk seal sightings in the MHI
  • Improved the database for MHI monk seal observations and obtained a new estimate of minimum abundance for the area
  • Successfully deployed a cellular phone-based GPS tag for tracking marine mammals in collaboration with the Sea Mammal Research Unit, St. Andrews, Scotland
  • Established an age and growth laboratory for Pacific marine turtles
  • Estimated the number of green turtles nesting at East Island, French Frigate Shoals, during the 2007 nesting season of olive ridley turtles in the North Pacific based on skeletochronology and published the findings
  • Finished analysis of a 20-yr collection of mtDNA samples from Hawaiian green turtles and prepared a manuscript detailing the research
  • Completed analysis and synthesis of data on the epidemic outbreak, rise, and decline of fibropapilloma tumor disease in the resident green turtle foraging population at Palau, Molokai, in the MHI
  • Initiated and implemented an international cooperative research project on the pelagic ecology of South Pacific loggerhead turtles

Studies Provide First Comprehensive Information on Odontocete Cetaceans in Waters of American Samoa

Studies by the new cetacean research program at PIFSC have led to vital baseline information about these marine mammals in the Pacific Islands Region. Cetaceans in American Samoa are designated as protected species under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Spinner dolphins approach Anu'u Island in American Samoa

During 2006, PSD researchers conducted cetacean sighting surveys around the islands of American Samoa. Some surveys were conducted from small vessels in coastal waters. Others were conducted from the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette in offshore waters using standard distance sampling and line transect methods. Detailed records were kept of each group of cetaceans encountered, including species, location, group size, and behavior. Photographs were taken to allow for identification of individual animals and development of sighting histories. In some cases, scientists were able to obtain a small sample of skin or blubber from the cetacean for DNA studies.

Several species of cetaceans were seen, including spinner dolphins, pilot whales, sperm whales, and four species previously undocumented in this region — bottlenose dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins, false killer whales, and dwarf sperm whales. The survey results indicate that the cetacean fauna of American Samoa is similar to those in other Pacific island areas.

Analysis of DNA revealed a relatively high genetic diversity within spinner dolphins in American Samoa. This finding, together with photo-ID information and the geographic isolation of the archipelago, suggests that spinner dolphins in American Samoa are one component of a metapopulation structure with limited gene flow occurring between populations in American Samoa and other Pacific locations.

Challenges, Problems, and Limitations

Through comprehensive efforts to monitor Hawaiian monk seals in the NWHI, we continue to document a persistent population decline in this imperiled species. An ongoing challenge is to diagnose the root causes of the decline and develop tools and strategies for enhancing the species' recovery. In the sea turtle and cetacean programs, we have broadened research agendas and identified research priorities, but we lack adequate funding and other resources to carry out new mandates.

Future Focus and Direction

Male honu coming ashore at Lisianski Island

During 2008, we will place more emphasis on characterizing the ecological factors influencing decline of Hawaiian monk seals, in part by studying the habitat needs and foraging behavior of juvenile seals, a segment of the population that suffers high mortality. At the same time, PSD will build partnerships with other agencies and nongovernmental organizations to develop methods for increasing survival of juvenile seals. If sufficient funds are available, we will continue field camps in the NWHI to collect demographic data for long-term monitoring, mitigate mortality (e.g., by disentangling seals from debris and reducing shark predation), and collect specimens for foraging and health studies. We also hope to expand monk seal monitoring and assessment in the MHI, where the monk seal population is increasing and human contact with seals is becoming more frequent. Another PSD goal will be to further develop and implement the cetacean stock assessment research program. This will include analyzing cetacean sound data from acoustic recorders, modeling spinner dolphin resting habitat characteristics, and expanding the community-based photographic identification catalog for Hawaiian spinner dolphins. PSD scientists will continue research on the foraging ecology of Hawaiian green sea turtles and address stock assessments of marine turtles in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and the CNMI. We will also continue to assess the status of marine turtle populations that forage in the central North Pacific but nest outside the United States, including leatherbacks, loggerheads, and olive ridleys.