Hawaiian Monk Seal Field Teams Deployed, Rehabilitated Monk Seals Released, and Marine Debris Removed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

June 14, 2016  

Deployment of the monk seal field camp at Laysan Island. NOAA photo by April Surgent.
Deployment of the monk seal field camp at Laysan Island. NOAA photo by April Surgent.
Rehabilitated yearling seal, Kilo, being released into the wild from temporary holding pen on Laysan Island. NOAA photo by Matt Chauvin.
Rehabilitated yearling seal, Kilo, being released into the wild from temporary holding pen on Laysan Island. NOAA photo by Matt Chauvin.

The NOAA ship R/V Hiʻialakai departed Honolulu on April 17th for a 27-day multi-project research cruise in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). On board were Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) and Marine Turtle Research Program (MTRP) ) field teams and all their food, water, tents, small boats, and other supplies and gear to last them for their 4 1/2 month deployment. The primary objectives for the field camps are to monitor the seal population at each location (including identifying all seals) and to identify threats and conduct interventions (such as disentangling seals, reuniting mother-pup pairs) to improve seal survival. Field camps were established at French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, and Pearl and Hermes Reef. The In addition, seal surveys were conducted at Niʻihau Island, Nihoa Island, and Midway Atoll.

Last September, 7 undernourished young Hawaiian monk seals were brought back from the NWHI to Ke Kai Ola (the monk seal hospital in Kona, Hawaii Island). After 6-7 months of rehabilitation, the seals were transported on this cruise and released back into the wild in the NWHI. Prior to release, the seals were temporarily held in a shore pen for several days to acclimate after the ship transit. All 7 of these seals are being tracked both visually by the field teams and by satellite tags and all are doing well. One of these rehabilitated seals, Kilo, left Laysan Island (her release location) and traveled over 140 miles within two weeks before arriving at Lisianski Island!

Map of Kilo's travels shortly after release into the wild.
Map of Kilo's travels shortly after release into the wild.
An entangled adult male monk seal at Lisianski Island prior to capture and removal of netting. NOAA photo by Brenda Becker.
An entangled adult male monk seal at Lisianski Island prior to capture and removal of netting. NOAA photo by Brenda Becker.

The monk seal field teams were deployed on the ship's transit up the island chain, and a team from NOAA's Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) joined the ship at Midway Atoll and collected and removed marine debris during the island stops as the ship traveled back down the island chain. In total, 10,965 kg (24,123 lbs) of derelict fishing gear and plastics were removed from the beaches at Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Lisianski Island, and French Frigate Shoals. To validate the value of marine debris removal, members of the CREP team were able to assist staff from the HMSRP in removing a deeply embedded net from the neck from an adult male seal at Lisianski Island. More information on the marine debris team's efforts is found at https://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/cruise/ha1603.php. Additionally, HMSRP field staff are continuing the collection of debris, plastic, and other trash that wash up on shore in the NWHI in an ongoing collaboration with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and CREP.

Below is a summary of the effort it took to deploy the field camps, translocate rehabilitated seals, and remove the marine debris in the NWHI.

NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai Cruise # HA-16-03
# Days at Sea 27
# Gallons of Fuel 33,315
# Nautical Miles Traveled 3,722
# Hrs Small Boat Operations 308
# Boats Launched/Recovered* 51
# Boat Lunches 209
# Lbs Gear Off-Loaded ~61,875
# Lbs Marine Debris Collected ~24,123
# Monk Seals Relocated 7
# Islands/Atolls/Banks Visited 9
# Scientists** 31
*Numerous boat runs for gear offloads!
**Scientific Party included personnel from the following NOAA research programs:
  • 2 MTRP (deployed)
  • 10 CREP - Marine Debris Team
  • 19 HMSRP (13 deployed)