Expedition Focused on Hawaiian Monk Seal Research and Marine Debris Removal in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette sailed from Honolulu on June 15, 2012, for a 30-day mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and to survey and remove derelict fishing gear and other marine debris from beaches and coral reef habitats. The research will support NOAA's efforts to recover the seal population and remove debris that is a threat to monk seals, sea turtles, and other marine life in the coral reef ecosystem. The expedition is staffed by scientists from the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR) working in the Protected Species Division and Coral Reef Ecosystem Division at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Chief Scientist responsibilities will be shared by JIMAR researchers Jessie Lopez and Kyle Koyanagi.
Each year, scientists in the PIFSC Monk Seal Research Program monitor the status of monk seals at remote locations in the NWHI and conduct research to better understand factors affecting abundance of the seals and ways to enhance the population's recovery. Researchers work out of seasonal field camps at the six major monk seal breeding locations in the NWHI: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll. During this summer's support voyage, the Sette will deploy researchers and their equipment at the six primary sites and also support seal censuses at Nihoa Island and Necker Island, where no camps will be established.
To help establish monk seal field camps, cruise personnel will transport equipment and supplies from the ship to the islands. Provisions sufficient to sustain teams of 2-4 scientists at each location for 2 months are needed. Included are tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, small work boats, and more. Everything brought ashore must be transported by hand and shuttled via small boats from the ship to the islands.
At Necker and Nihoa Islands, scientists will spend a day at each location counting seals, documenting tagged seals, and applying identification tags to weaned seal pups. Identifying seals at these two NWHI locations is an important aspect of the research, as 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.
In addition to assisting the Hawaiian monk seal monitoring and research, the Sette will support a team of marine debris specialists to survey and remove marine debris. Derelict fishing gear and other marine debris is collected by ocean currents and swept onto the coral reefs and beaches of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where it is a hazard to marine life. Although the debris is a constant threat, the quantity of debris is expected to increase in coming years as a result of the devastating March 2011 tsunami in northeastern Japan, which injected massive amounts of debris into the North Pacific. During the Sette cruise, a crew of 17 scientists with specialized dive training will conduct in-water marine debris survey and removal operations at Midway Atoll, Kure Atoll, and Pearl and Hermes Atoll, focusing on areas known to have high densities of derelict fishing gear. Debris survey and removal operations will also be conducted along the shorelines of Midway atoll, Kure Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Laysan Island, and Lisianski Island. Debris removed from the reefs and shorelines will be taken onboard the Sette and transported to Honolulu. Removal of debris from the coral reefs and beaches will reduce the risk of entanglement for protected marine mammals, sea turtles and other wildlife utilizing these habitats. As debris is surveyed and cataloged, researchers will attempt to document any debris that could have originated from the 2011 Japan tsunami.
While the main focus of the expedition is monk seal research and marine debris removal, periodically during the cruise, shipboard personnel will collect oceanographic data on subsurface ocean temperature and conductivity by deploying a CTD instrument. 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 and Midway Island and a permanent field camp at Laysan Island. The cruise will also support a field camp operated by the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife at Kure Atoll.