Population Assessment Field Camps - Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef. Field researcher recording monk seal data. Entering data in the field.
Field camp at Pearl and Hermes Reef (left). Field researcher recording monk seal data (center). Entering data in the field (right).

One of the major objectives of the Hawaiian monk seal Population Assessment and Enhancement Initiative is to monitor and assess the six main Hawaiian monk seal reproductive subpopulations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) at French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll and Kure Atoll, which are all located within Papahānaumokuāea Marine National Monument.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument approximate boundary outlined.
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument approximate boundary outlined.

Field Deployment and Living Conditions

Remote camp on Laysan Island.
Remote camp on Laysan Island.

Field teams of 2-4 biologists are deployed to each location for 2-6 months, in most years. Teams live in primitive tent camps where all personnel and food, water, equipment, and supplies are brought via ship, typically NOAA research ships Oscar Elton Sette and Hiʻialakai, or chartered vessels. Midway Atoll is unique in that it has buildings, more amenities and is also accessible by plane. Prior to departure, teams receive additional training in specialized wilderness first aid because of the remoteness. Additionally, strict quarantine procedures are followed when preparing items for deployment to the NWHI to ensure that alien pests (insects and seeds) are not introduced to these unique island ecosystems.

Additional information for the individual islands can be found at:

Research Objectives

The objectives for all sites include measuring and tagging all weaned seal pups; identifying all individuals in each subpopulation via tags, applied bleach marks and naturally occurring scars or marks with the aid of a digital photo ID database; conducting systematic beach counts of seals for trend indices; documenting births, deaths, serious injuries, and entanglement in marine debris; conducting necropsies on dead seals; collecting seal scats (feces) and spews (regurgitate) for diet analysis; and collecting and removing marine debris which presents an entanglement threat to Hawaiian monk seals and other wildlife. Additionally, field teams disentangle seals, reunite separated mother-pup pairs, and conduct other enhancement activities to facilitate population recovery.

Other objectives vary between subpopulations and seasons. For example, at locations (e.g., Laysan Island and Kure Atoll) where male seal aggression has resulted in severe injury and even death of females and immature seals, additional effort is directed at observing the aggressive behavior, identifying the aggressive males, and intervening when appropriate, including treatment of injured seals. At French Frigate Shoals, where seal pups are particularly susceptible to shark attacks, biologists conduct extensive monitoring of shark/seal interactions and translocate newly weaned pups from areas of higher to lower predation risk within the atoll.