Protected Species Division

The Protected Species Division (PSD) conducts research supporting the recovery and sustainability of marine mammals and sea turtles in the Pacific Islands Region. Marine mammaal 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 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 2008

The PSD is organized into four programs:

The PSD staff of 36 includes 13 federal employees, 17 JIMAR staff, and others.

Key 2008 Accomplishments

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

During 2009, we will continue to place emphasis on characterizing the ecological factors influencing the 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. PSD 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. PSD also hopes 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 characteristics of spinner dolphin resting habitat, and expanding the community-based photographic identification catalog for Hawaiian spinner dolphins. PSD scientists will continue research on the foraging ecology of the Hawaiian green sea turtle, place increased emphasis on the endangered hawksbill sea turtle, and address stock assessments of marine turtles in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and the CNMI. PSD 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.