Protected Species Division

PIFSC research extends into 
        the Mediterranean Sea, where studies are underway to develop modifications of fishing gear and practices that 
        reduce incidental capture and mortality of sea turtles.
PIFSC research extends into the Mediterranean Sea, where studies are underway to develop modifications of fishing gear and practices that reduce incidental capture and mortality of sea turtles.

The Protected Species Division (PSD) conducts monitoring and research supporting the recovery and sustainability of marine mammals and sea turtles in the Pacific Islands Region. Marine mammal studies involve the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and cetaceans. Marine turtle studies are focused on the threatened Hawaiian green turtle population but also address 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 a range of methods including 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.

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. The program's work covers the entire Hawaiian 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) and main Hawaiian Islands (MHI); investigations of foraging ecology; monitoring and assessment of health and disease parameters; identification of natural and human factors that may be limiting monk seal recovery; and research on methods to enhance recovery of the species.
  • 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 to cetacean populations. The program's research involves 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 program trains Pacific islanders and fishery observers in sea turtle biology and handling, collects data on fishery interactions with sea turtles, and studies the pelagic ecology of loggerheads in the Pacific. Many of the program's studies involve partnerships with scientists in other agencies and institutions, both in the U.S. and in foreign countries.
  • The Marine Turtle Assessment Program (MTAP) expands understanding of marine turtle population ecology through studies of the stock structure and status of turtle populations across the Pacific Ocean. The primary geographic focus of the program is on the U.S.-flagged Pacific territories outside of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Program scientists also collaborate with the Marine Turtle Research Programs at PIFSC and the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center to achieve the wider goal of marine turtle stock recovery in the Pacific basin. Current research projects include: turtle demography and population dynamics; assessment of natural and anthropogenic factors affecting turtle populations; evaluation of management strategies influencing marine turtle recovery; development of statistical simulations to identify data needs and demographic trends and design and evaluate management strategies; development of skeletochronology techniques for aging of stranded turtles; and a variety of other studies of marine turtle population ecology. Recently, the program began working with biologists in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) to help them develop mentoring programs to assess abundance and stock structure of marine turtle populations in their areas.

The PSD staff of 35 includes 13 federal employees, 16 JIMAR staff, and others. Grants and salaries make up most of PSD expenditures in FY 2009.

Protected Species Division-FY 2009
  $ %
Salaries and benefits 1,318,551 27.0
Grants 1,860,272 38.1
Contracts 776,401 15.9
Travel, transportation, charters, printing, supplies, equipment 932,653 19.0
Total $4,887,877  
PSD Personnel
Federal 13
Other 6
Total 35

Key 2009 Accomplishments

  • Conducted a workshop to review protocols, staffing, priorities, and other elements of the Hawaiian monk seal research program to maximize research productivity and efficiency.
  • Fully staffed and conducted annual NWHI monk seal population assessment, including winter camps.
  • Conducted cetacean assessment survey in the main Hawaiian Islands, using the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to investigate cetacean abundance and evaluate seasonal movements of cetaceans relative to previous surveys.
  • Initiated deworming trials to study the potential for increasing the survival of juvenile monk seals by decreasing their parasite loads.
  • Completed field collections of Hawaiian monk seal health and disease information in the NWHI.
  • Conducted a workshop of monk seal researchers, shark experts, and key stakeholders to discuss and develop strategies for mitigating shark-related mortality of young monk seals at French Frigate Shoals.
  • Estimated the number of green turtles nesting at East Island, French Frigate Shoals, during the 2009 nesting season.
  • Successfully relocated 6 weaned monk seal pups from French Frigate Shoals to Nihoa Island with the objective of improving their chances of survival.
  • Conducted cetacean surveys off the west coast of Oahu, attaching satellite tags to false killer whales to evaluate their movement patterns relative to prey resources and commercial fishing.
  • Worked with the ITS Systems Design Team to convert the marine turtle database from Microsoft Access to Oracle and checked the quality of historic data.
  • Began a study of organochlorine and other contaminants in Hawaiian monk seals of the main Hawaiian Islands.
  • Continued long-term acoustic monitoring of cetaceans at Palmyra Atoll, Ladd Seamount, and the Island of Hawaii, and began an evaluation of acoustic survey records in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to identify oceanographic correlates of cetacean seasonal occurrence.
  • Published a paper on historic changes in the dietary preferences of Hawaiian green sea turtles in Kaneohe Bay, Oahu.
  • Released 25 satellite-tagged juvenile loggerhead turtles in pelagic waters of the North Pacific to study their ecology, movements and habitat use in collaboration with international partners and EOD staff.
  • Completed a 2-year study to identify deterrent devices effective in the mitigation of shark predation on Hawaiian monk seal pups at French Frigate Shoals.

Challenges, Problems, and Limitations

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

Future Focus and Direction

During 2010, we will continue to emphasize studies of the ecological factors influencing the decline of Hawaiian monk seals, in part by studying the habitat needs and foraging behavior of juvenile seals. Concurrently, we will build partnerships with other agencies and nongovernmental organizations to develop methods for increasing the survival of juvenile seals. We will continue field camps in the NWHI to collect demographic data for long-term monitoring, collect specimens for studies of seal foraging and health, and mitigate seal mortality (e.g., by disentangling seals from debris and reducing shark predation). PSD also will expand monk seal monitoring and assessment in the MHI, where seal abundance is increasing and human contact with seals is becoming more frequent.

PSD will further develop and implement the cetacean stock assessment research program in 2010. The cetacean program will begin research in waters of CNMI, Guam, and Wake Island with ship-based sighting and acoustic surveys, the placement of HARPs for year-round assessment of cetacean occurrence, and new partnerships with local agencies to build cetacean research capabilities in those areas. We will expand the community-based photographic identification catalog for Hawaiian spinner dolphins and initiate research on false killer whales and their interactions with longline gear with the goal of reducing and mitigating incidental take of this species by the fishery.

PSD scientists will continue research on the foraging ecology of Hawaiian green sea turtles, place increased emphasis on study of 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.

Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals Exhibit Extremely Low Genetic Diversity

Recent research by scientists from the University of Hawaii's Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) revealed that Hawaiian monk seals, like many other endangered animal populations, have low genetic diversity. But the extremely low level of diversity discovered in monk seals is unprecedented. The findings are based on genetic screening of almost every monk seal encountered during beach surveys by PIFSC biologists over the past quarter century - more than 2400 animals. Small plugs of tissue were collected from the flippers of 2355 seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and 54 seals from the main Hawaiian Islands. Genomic DNA was extracted from the samples and analyzed by HIMB.

Genetic diversity is an asset to wildlife populations. Species with a rich store of genetic resources are better able to face adversity, whereas those with low genetic variation are less able to fend off disease and adapt to changes in their environment. Moreover, all populations, but especially those with low genetic diversity, are more vulnerable when they are small. Hawaiian monk seals number about 1200 and the population is declining at 4.5% annually due to low survival of pups and other factors. Accordingly, the question of the population's genetic diversity has drawn considerable attention.

The cause of low genetic diversity in monk seals remains unknown. Research by other scientists has shown that a "bottleneck" of low genetic variability can result in a population rapidly reduced to low numbers, as Hawaiian monk seals were when hunted by European explorers in the 1800s. Other factors, like inbreeding, can also reduce genetic variation. But the recent Hawaiian study indicates that the low genetic variation in monk seals predated the 19th century human impacts and there is scarce evidence of inbreeding in today's population.

Despite its extraordinarily low genetic diversity, the monk seal population has shown a capacity to grow if conditions permit, as it apparently recovered to some degree during much of the 20th century. Its recent steady decline is attributed to food limitation, shark predation, entanglement in marine debris, and other nongenetic factors. If the population continues to decline, low genetic diversity may become a more critical factor in the species' survival.

The monk seal genetics research was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Heredity in an article by Jennifer Schultz, Robert Toonen, and Brian Bowen of HIMB and Jason Baker of PIFSC.

Reference: Schultz, J.K., J.D. Baker, R.J. Toonen, and B.W. Bowen. 2009. Extremely low genetic diversity in the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi). J. Hered. 100(1):25–33.

Hawaiian Monk Seal
Hawaiian Monk Seal
Last updated July 26 2011