NOAA Expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Providing Vital Support for Research on Hawaiian Monk Seals and Green Turtles

April 4, 2011
Hawaiian monk seal.
Hawaiian monk seal.
Small boats are used to transport gear from the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to 
        field camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Small boats are used to transport gear from the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to field camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Camp setup involves heavy manual labor.
Camp setup involves heavy manual labor.
Seals are counted and identified on the basis of unique tags applied to each seal during previous 
        research expeditions.
Seals are counted and identified on the basis of unique tags applied to each seal during previous research expeditions.

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is on a 23-day research expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and support research at French Frigate Shoals on the threatened green sea turtle. The information gained will support NOAA's efforts to recover populations of these protected species. In addition to the research work, at several locations the ship’s field party will collect hazardous marine debris that has accumulated on the shores and near-shore environments of the NWHI.

Monk seal research is a primary focus of scientists at NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Staff of the Protected Species Division's Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) annually monitor the status of monk seals at remote locations in the NWHI, study factors affecting abundance of the seals, and seek ways to enhance the seal population's recovery. MMRP staff work out of seasonal field camps at the six major NWHI monk seal breeding locations.

During its current voyage, the Sette will deploy researchers and their equipment at six sites where seasonal camps will be set up: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll. The ship will also support seal censuses at 2 other sites, Nihoa Island and Necker (Mokumanamana) Island, where no camp will be established.

Under the direction of Chief Scientist Chad Yoshinaga, cruise personnel will transport equipment and supplies from the ship to the islands, materials which will support teams of 2-4 scientists at each location for up to 4 months. Included are tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, small boats, and more. Everything must be shuttled via small boats from the ship to the islands.

At Necker and Nihoa Islands, the scientists will spend a day at each site counting seals, applying identification tags to weaned seal pups, and documenting seals previously tagged. Identifying seals with tags at these two NWHI locations is an important aspect of the research because these islands are close to the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). Subsequent sightings of the tagged seals will provide valuable information on the extent of seal movements between the NWHI and the MHI, something currently unknown.

In addition to conducting monk seal studies, shipboard personnel will collect marine debris that is hazardous to wildlife, including nets, ropes, derelict fishing gear, and other debris, from the near-shore and shoreline environments around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and retrieve piles of debris previously collected by field camp staff. Debris from the open ocean accumulates in shallow waters around the islands and washes up along the shoreline. Seals, turtles, fishes, and birds may get tangled in the debris, and entanglement can lead to serious injury or death. The ship will have to deploy small boats in order to get workers close to the islands where the debris is located. Scientific divers and ship personnel will bring the debris onto the boats by hand and transport it back to the ship where it will be loaded and brought back to Honolulu for disposal.

Marine debris includes derelict fishing gear from fishing fleets outside Hawaii that can entangle monk 
        seals and turtles, causing them to drown, or inflict injuries that can be fatal. Debris is collected and 
        transported by small boats to the Sette, then brought back to Honolulu for proper disposal. Marine debris includes derelict fishing gear from fishing fleets outside Hawaii that can entangle monk 
        seals and turtles, causing them to drown, or inflict injuries that can be fatal. Debris is collected and 
        transported by small boats to the Sette, then brought back to Honolulu for proper disposal. Marine debris includes derelict fishing gear from fishing fleets outside Hawaii that can entangle monk 
        seals and turtles, causing them to drown, or inflict injuries that can be fatal. Debris is collected and 
        transported by small boats to the Sette, then brought back to Honolulu for proper disposal.
Marine debris includes derelict fishing gear from fishing fleets outside Hawaii that can entangle monk seals and turtles, causing them to drown, or inflict injuries that can be fatal. Debris is collected and transported by small boats to the Sette, then brought back to Honolulu for proper disposal.
A CTD instrument is deployed from the Sette to measure vertical profiles of ocean conductivity and 
        temperature.
A CTD instrument is deployed from the Sette to measure vertical profiles of ocean conductivity and temperature.

Periodically during the cruise, shipboard personnel will collect oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by taking CTD measurements. The data will be added to a comprehensive NOAA oceanographic database and used to better understand large-scale phenomena like climate change and the dynamics of local features like oceanic fronts.

The Sette cruise will also provide support for several partner agencies working in the NWHI. Supplies and equipment will be transported for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains field stations at French Frigate Shoals (where an annual survey of nesting Hawaiian green turtles is conducted) and Midway Island and a permanent field camp at Laysan Island. The cruise will also deploy a field camp operated by the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife at Kure Atoll.