The Protected Species Division (PSD) conducts research supporting the recovery and sustainability of marine mammals and sea turtles in the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). Marine mammal studies involve the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and cetaceans. Marine turtle studies involve primarily the threatened Hawaiian green turtle population, but also address other species including hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback turtles. PSD research covers a broad range of topics in life history, ecology, health and disease, and demography.
The research employs several advanced technologies. Passive acoustic monitoring systems are used to detect underwater sounds produced by cetaceans and by vessels and other anthropogenic sources. Other instruments deployed concurrently record oceanographic features. Satellite-linked Geographic Positioning System (GPS) tags are attached to monk seals and turtles to track their movements and describe dive patterns. Archival electronic tags are used to obtain fine-scale dive pattern information. Fatty acid profile analysis is used to determine the diet of monk seals. Mathematical and statistical methods are used to model population dynamics and analyze data from field studies and surveys.
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The PSD is organized into four programs:
The PSD staff of 29 includes 9 federal employees and 20 JIMAR staff.
Studies by the new cetacean research program at PIFSC have led to vital baseline information about these marine mammals in the Pacific Islands Region. Cetaceans in American Samoa are designated as protected species under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.
During 2006, PSD researchers conducted cetacean sighting surveys around the islands of American Samoa. Some surveys were conducted from small vessels in coastal waters. Others were conducted from the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette in offshore waters using standard distance sampling and line transect methods. Detailed records were kept of each group of cetaceans encountered, including species, location, group size, and behavior. Photographs were taken to allow for identification of individual animals and development of sighting histories. In some cases, scientists were able to obtain a small sample of skin or blubber from the cetacean for DNA studies.
Several species of cetaceans were seen, including spinner dolphins, pilot whales, sperm whales, and four species previously undocumented in this region — bottlenose dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins, false killer whales, and dwarf sperm whales. The survey results indicate that the cetacean fauna of American Samoa is similar to those in other Pacific island areas.
Analysis of DNA revealed a relatively high genetic diversity within spinner dolphins in American Samoa. This finding, together with photo-ID information and the geographic isolation of the archipelago, suggests that spinner dolphins in American Samoa are one component of a metapopulation structure with limited gene flow occurring between populations in American Samoa and other Pacific locations.
Through comprehensive efforts to monitor Hawaiian monk seals in the NWHI, we continue to document a persistent population decline in this imperiled species. An ongoing challenge is to diagnose the root causes of the decline and develop tools and strategies for enhancing the species' recovery. In the sea turtle and cetacean programs, we have broadened research agendas and identified research priorities, but we lack adequate funding and other resources to carry out new mandates.
During 2008, we will place more emphasis on characterizing the ecological factors influencing decline of Hawaiian monk seals, in part by studying the habitat needs and foraging behavior of juvenile seals, a segment of the population that suffers high mortality. At the same time, PSD will build partnerships with other agencies and nongovernmental organizations to develop methods for increasing survival of juvenile seals. If sufficient funds are available, we will continue field camps in the NWHI to collect demographic data for long-term monitoring, mitigate mortality (e.g., by disentangling seals from debris and reducing shark predation), and collect specimens for foraging and health studies. We also hope to expand monk seal monitoring and assessment in the MHI, where the monk seal population is increasing and human contact with seals is becoming more frequent. Another PSD goal will be to further develop and implement the cetacean stock assessment research program. This will include analyzing cetacean sound data from acoustic recorders, modeling spinner dolphin resting habitat characteristics, and expanding the community-based photographic identification catalog for Hawaiian spinner dolphins. PSD scientists will continue research on the foraging ecology of Hawaiian green sea turtles and address stock assessments of marine turtles in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and the CNMI. We will also continue to assess the status of marine turtle populations that forage in the central North Pacific but nest outside the United States, including leatherbacks, loggerheads, and olive ridleys.