2014 Field Season Wraps Up for Hawaiian Monk Seal Research in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

During the 2014 field season in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), the PIFSC Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) collected seal population data and conducted recovery actions at all six major Hawaiian monk seal breeding locations within the NWHI. Due to budget cuts, field studies were severely curtailed in 2012—2013 which resulted in greater uncertainty in estimates of seal abundance and other demographic parameters and fewer interventions by PIFSC field staff to increase seal survival. In 2014, longer field seasons were planned for 5 of the 6 breeding sites but effort was truncated at some sites where field researchers had to be evacuated due to the threat of hurricanes Iselle, Julio, and Genevieve.

Prior to the 2014 summer field season, HMSRP staff facilitated monk seal data collection by cooperating research partners. At Midway Atoll, colleagues from the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began periodic data collection in March. At Kure Atoll, State of Hawaii biologists conducted weekly seal surveys from October 2013 until NMFS field staff arrived in July.

Disentangling Hawaiian monk seals from derelict fishing gear and other marine debris is one of the ways researchers intervene to 
        enhance monk seal survival in the NWHI.
Disentangling Hawaiian monk seals from derelict fishing gear and other marine debris is one of the ways researchers intervene to enhance monk seal survival in the NWHI.

NWHI field camps were deployed at French Frigate Shoals (FFS), Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef (PHR), and Kure Atoll from June 19 to July 1, 2014, during an expedition of the NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai. As the hurricanes threatened, field researchers at Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, and PHR were evacuated by the Navy and taken to Midway Atoll on August 8. Midway field work was stepped up with the arrival of the evacuated field staff. The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette was scheduled to redeploy the Laysan camp on September 5 and recover personnel and field gear from all 6 sites during September 8-15. Surveys of Nihoa and Mokumanamana (Necker) Islands were conducted during the Hiʻialakai deployment mission and scheduled to be repeated during the Sette pick-up mission and/or during a separate expedition to Nihoa on the R/V Searcher in September 2014.

Seasonal field camps are established at major pupping sites, like this one at Pearl and Hermes Reef, to support research and 
        recovery of Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Seasonal field camps are established at major pupping sites, like this one at Pearl and Hermes Reef, to support research and recovery of Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Throughout the 2014 field season researchers collected demographic information on seals, conducted recovery actions, and documented the birth of at least 121 pups. Recovery actions included disentangling seals from marine debris; camping and shark fishing at FFS pupping sites to detect, deter, and document shark predation; relocating at least 18 weaned pups within FFS to lower their risk of predation; deterring adult male aggression towards weaned pups; and removing entanglement hazards from all breeding sites. At FFS, a black pipe was removed from the beach berm; the pipe was an entrapment hazard and necessitated the rescue of 43 entrapped green turtles during the season. The opening of Ke Kai Ola, the Marine Mammal Center's monk seal hospital in Kailua-Kona created an opportunity to help seals in the NWHI that otherwise probably would have died in the wild. A total of 4 immature seals (two thin/emaciated juveniles and 2 prematurely weaned pups) were collected during the deployment voyage and transported to Ke Kai Ola where they gained up to 25% of their body weight after arrival. These seals are to be released back to the NWHI during the September expedition. In addition, during that mission, a number of weaned pups will be translocated within the NWHI from areas of lower survival to areas of higher survival, and thin/emaciated seals may be collected for treatment at the Kona facility.