Building capacity in the U.S. Territories

by Dr. Edward DeMartini
Ed DeMartini explains a projected image of a histology slide to the newspaper reporter.

Ed DeMartini explains a projected image of a histology slide to the newspaper reporter.

“Wow! That looks like great abstract art,” said John Gourley, one of the participants in a workshop/tutorial that I conducted. “The colors are amazing.”

As part of the Fish Life History Program at PIFSC, I had the opportunity to help our agency partners in Saipan and American Samoa. I conducted two training sessions to build capacity in the U.S. Territories by teaching our partners how to identify sex and assess maturity of fishes using histology slides of gonads.

At the end of the training, students had to pass a practicum using previously unseen slides.

At the end of the training, students had to pass a practicum using previously unseen slides.

Although the training started as a 2-day class at Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), our partners in American Samoa soon traveled to the NOAA Fisheries facility on Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, for the same training. This was a great way to share our methods and develop collaborations with other researchers. The methods I taught represent the best way to obtain the body size at sexual maturity information needed to improve management of our coastal fisheries.

I provided histological slides of gonadal materials for a practicum to assess the abilities of biologists to accurately evaluate sex and sexual maturity. Here a DFW biologist and Tony Flores (MES, next to myself) examine microscope slides while Manny Ramon (MES, in front) and Trey Dunn (DFW) look on.

I provided histological slides of gonadal materials for a practicum to assess the abilities of biologists to accurately evaluate sex and sexual maturity. Here a DFW biologist and Tony Flores (MES, next to myself) examine microscope slides while Manny Ramon (MES, in front) and Trey Dunn (DFW) look on.

“I just wanted to say thank you for the various forms of support that you have provided to the Saipan Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and the Micronesian Environmental Services (MES) bio-sampling program,” said workshop participant and MES owner John Gourley. “The 2-day gonad staging workshop went well and I believe we have several candidates that will be able to assist PIFSC in alleviating the backlog of gonad samples that have been collected from the various bio-sampling programs over the past several years.”

A local newspaper produced two articles about the workshop:

This was a great opportunity to help train NOAA Fisheries’ partners in the U.S. Territories. I know that all of the agencies are appreciative of the support that I provided.

Beneficial collaboration between PIFSC and agency representatives from the CNMI.

Beneficial collaboration between PIFSC and agency representatives from the CNMI.


Posted in Fisheries Research and Monitoring, Scientific Operations | Tagged , , , ,

Black, white, and rare: Cetacean Program finds killer whales in the main Hawaiian Islands


Killer whales in formation in front of the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette. Photo by Adam Ü.

This month the Cetacean Research Program at PIFSC has been surveying the waters around the main Hawaiian Islands to better understand the population structure and abundance of a variety of whale and dolphin species.   We’ve brought along a number of technologies to detect, measure, and track cetaceans and call our effort “HI-TEC”, or Hawaiian Islands- Technology for the Ecology of Cetaceans, 2016. Among the most exciting encounters have been three sightings of killer whales, which are relatively infrequent visitors to the Hawaiian Islands.  They are spotted by recreational boaters every now and then, and their appearance usually makes the news.  NMFS cetacean surveys of the Hawaiian Archipelago have encountered killer whales only four times since 2002, and our research partners have seen them only a handful of times more.

Many people best know killer whales from the populations along the west coasts of the US and Canada.  Killer whales in Hawaii are distinct from those along the west coast of North America in that they have a comparatively narrow and dull colored saddle patch (the patch of gray shading behind and below their dorsal fin).  Killer whales in Hawaii have been observed feeding on other marine mammals, as well as on cephalopods (octopus and squid), somewhat unique relative to other populations that feed exclusively on either fish or mammals.  These observations suggest that Hawaii’s killer whales may have a more general diet than that documented for coastal temperate populations.  A review of all known killer whale sightings in Hawaiian waters from 1994 to 2004, combined with more recent sightings, indicates that killer whales may be present in Hawaii at any time of year.


Killer whales lined up for their photograph. Individuals can be identified by the shape of and nicks on their dorsal fin, as well as by the shape and coloration of the saddle patch. Photo by Adam Ü.

Over the past two weeks, we found killer whales off the north side of Maui on July 13, off the southern Kona coast of the Big Island on July 16, and again off central Kona while working with our partners from Cascadia Research on July 21.  The two encounters off the Big Island were of the same group, while the group seen off Maui was different, distinguished by the shape of and nicks on their dorsal fins and the shape and coloration of the saddle patches.  Although our previous experience with killer whales in Hawaii has been that they are skittish and rarely stay around long enough for even identification photographs, all three encounters this month were extraordinarily productive.  We were able to collect small tissue samples (or biopsies) from all 5 whales seen off the Big Island, a significant increase in biopsy sample size for killer whales around Hawaii.  The biopsy samples will be used to understand how these killer whales relate to others throughout the Pacific, and can also contribute to foraging and contaminant studies.

We were also able to deploy two satellite tags during our last encounter, which will allow us to understand where else these animals spend their time.  Satellite tags have been previously deployed on one group of killer whales in Hawaii in November 2013 by Cascadia Research.  Those animals traveled halfway to the Marshall Islands before the tag stopped transmitting.  So far, our tagged whales have headed northeast, and are currently about 100 miles northeast of Maui.


Sighting locations and satellite tag track from killer whales encountered during HI-TEC 2016. Identification photographs reveal two different groups were seen, one shown in yellow and the other in red. The track heading northeast shows the first 3 days of movement.

During this survey effort, we’ve brought along a new tool: an APH-22 hexacopter that we’re testing for determining the size of dolphin groups and assessing the size and condition of individual animals within those groups.  This hexacopter work has been a partnership with the Cetacean Health and Life History Program at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) and has yielded some amazing images this trip.  During the July 16th encounter with killer whales, the hexacopter team was able to capture some beautiful images, rounding out three incredible encounters with this rarely seen species.


Aerial image of killer whales seen off southern Kona on July 16. These types of images allow us to assess animal size and body condition. The large female on the right and the two juveniles on the left all appear robust and healthy. This image was taken from an APH-22 hexacopter hovering 100 feet above the whales and flown by our skillful pilot Jake Barbaro (SWFSC) and ground station operator Rory Driskell (PIFSC).

Overall, a rare opportunity to study killer whales has yielded about as much data as we could have hoped to collect: thousands of photographs, tissue samples for genetic analyses, satellite tags for movement studies, acoustic recordings of killer whale sounds, and aerial photographs for measuring individuals.  Success!  What a great week!

All work on killer whales was conducted under NMFS marine mammal take permit 15240 issued to the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and 19091 issued to the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Posted in Protected Species | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

How Much Does it Cost a Fishery to Save a Single Sea Turtle?

by Minling Pan

If you ever wondered how much it costs a fishery to save a sea turtle, check out this new study conducted by Dr. Minling Pan of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) Socioeconomic program and Dr. Shichao Li, formerly of the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research of the University of Hawaiʻi.

According to their study, the answer to this question is quite straightforward: a fishery’s cost of saving a turtle depends on the rate of sea turtle bycatch (unintended and unwanted catch) in the fishery. In short, the higher the bycatch rate, the lower the cost to save one sea turtle (through regulating the fishery to reduce sea turtle interactions).

This finding suggests that it would be more cost effective if sea turtle conservation efforts or regulations — such as seasonal or area closures, sea turtle caps, or effort caps — take place in fisheries where bycatch rates are high. Given the transboundary nature of sea turtle and swordfish populations, these results provide insights into opportunities for fishery managers to explore win-win solutions in promoting sea turtle conservation while maintaining sustainable fisheries.

Measuring the cost of saving sea turtles

To measure the cost of saving one sea turtle in a fishery, Drs. Pan and Li developed a spatial and temporal model of sea turtle interactions the Hawaiʻi swordfish fishery. This model enables prediction of sea turtle interaction rates associated with each unit of swordfish fishing effort and the economic returns of the fishing effort by area and time.

They used a Generalized Additive Model approach, developed by PIFSC colleagues Kobayashi and Polovina (2005), to estimate sea turtle interactions associated with fishing effort in various seasons and locations. They added to the model economic returns associated with fishing effort by estimating a fishing trip cost function using ongoing trip cost data collected through a collaborative effort between the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program and the Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) Observer Program.

courtesy: PIRO Observer Program

courtesy: PIRO Observer Program

The analysis compares the costs of saving one sea turtle across international fisheries with various sea turtle bycatch rates, and the team examined the trade-offs between saving one sea turtle and the economic returns of fishing operations in different seasons and different areas.

The study found that between 1994 and 2003, the Hawaiʻi swordfish fishery interacted with one loggerhead sea turtle for every 23,000 pounds of swordfish caught. This swordfish catch would be valued at approximately $50,000 in 2015 swordfish prices. After NOAA Fisheries imposed new regulations on gear and bait in April 2004, the sea turtle bycatch rate for the fishery dropped significantly.

Thus, in recent years, the fishery has interacted with one loggerhead for every 238,000 pounds of swordfish caught. This amount of catch is worth $520,000 in 2015 swordfish prices. Consequently, the marginal cost to a fishery, in terms of lost revenues, for saving an additional sea turtle is higher when the sea turtle bycatch rate is low, the researchers found.

If you are interested in finding out more detailed information, click the link below to read the newly published paper:

Evaluation of Fishing Opportunities under Sea Turtle Interaction Limits – A Decision Support Model for Hawaii-based Longline Swordfish, Xiphias gladius, Fishery Management.

For more information about this and other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our websitebrowse recent blog posts, or contact us by email:

Posted in Socioeconomics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Assessing impacts of coral bleaching: NOAA scientists embark on a three-month survey of coral reef ecosystems in the Hawaiian Archipelago

by Drs. Bernardo Vargas-Ángel and Rusty Brainard

French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NOAA Photo)

Today, scientists from the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program boarded the NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai to begin a 75-day Hawaiian Archipelago Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (HARAMP) research mission. The goal of this mission is to document the status and trends of the coral reef ecosystems of the popular main Hawaiian Islands and the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

As part of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, this HARAMP expedition will conduct the first statewide surveys to assess the overall impacts of two back-to-back mass coral bleaching events, which occurred in 2014 and 2015 and were caused by unusually warm water temperatures. When water temperatures reach 1°C warmer than their usual summertime maximum, many corals begin to lose the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, making them look white — that is, they become “bleached.”

This expedition will be the 6th monitoring cruise in the main Hawaiian Islands and the 10th monitoring cruise in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands led by the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program and partner agencies since 2000. It’s designed to provide an ongoing, consistent flow of information to document the status and long-term trends of the coral reefs and changing environmental conditions.

These statewide monitoring surveys will complement the local and site-specific coral reef monitoring efforts led by our partner agencies and institutions. Partners participating in this mission include scientists from the State of Hawai‘i Division of Aquatic ResourcesThe Nature ConservancyHawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, and San Diego State University, among others.


Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure installed on left, calcification accretion unit on right (NOAA Photo)

Scientists will survey the coral reefs around each of the main Hawaiian Islands, including Ni‘ihau, Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Molokai, Lāna‘i, Maui, Kaho‘olawe, and Hawai‘i Islands, and the coral reefs at French Frigate Shoals, Lisianski/Neva Shoals, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Each day, they will deploy 4–5 small boats with a team of scientific divers from the Hi`ialakai to conduct in-water surveys of the different reef zones, such as forereef, backreef, and lagoons around the different sides of each island or atoll ecosystem. We often find that the coral reefs and associated organisms vary greatly between leeward and windward sides of islands that are exposed to different environmental conditions, such as waves and currents.

Coral Reef

Under the direction of Chief Scientists Drs. Bernardo Vargas-Ángel in the main Hawaiian Islands and Brett Schumacher in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the different dive teams will conduct underwater surveys of reef fishes, corals, other invertebrates, algae, and microbes. They will deploy and retrieve Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures, or ARMS, to assess the biodiversity of ‘cryptic’ coral reef species that live within the reef (small crabs, shrimp, snails, etc.).

Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) installed at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) installed at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Close-up of ARMS unit at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Close-up of ARMS unit at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Calcification accretion unit installed at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI (NOAA Photo)

Calcification accretion unit installed at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI (NOAA Photo)







Additionally, oceanographers aboard the Hi`ialakai will collect data on water temperature, salinity, carbonate chemistry, and other physical characteristics of the coral reef environment with an assortment of oceanographic monitoring instruments. Among other things, they’re monitoring the ecological impacts of ocean acidification by determining the rates of reef growth and reef removal using tools called calcification accretion units and bioerosion monitoring units, respectively, which are deployed on the reef substrate for three years.

Data collected by the scientific staff of this cruise are pivotal to long-term biological and oceanographic monitoring of coral reef ecosystems in the Hawaiian Archipelago. This 2016 HARAMP expedition will help inform scientists, resource managers, and policy makers about changes that have occurred compared with similar surveys conducted in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 (main Hawaiian Islands only), 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2013.

Hawaiian Archipelago Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program Cruise 2016 Timeline

In particular, data on the abundance and spatial distribution of reef fishes and benthic organisms will allow scientists to evaluate potential changes in the condition and integrity of coral reef ecosystems across the Hawaiian Archipelago. It will also enable federal and state resource managers to more effectively manage and conserve reef-associated animal and plant life in the region. This year’s surveys are particularly important since many of the coral reefs experienced mass coral bleaching in both 2014 and 2015, and these surveys will provide an opportunity to assess the net change in coral cover for each of the islands across the archipelago.


Posted in coral reef ecosystem, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lancetfish on the (Long) Line

You’ve probably heard of fish such as bigeye tuna and mahi mahi, but what about lancetfish?  Hawaii’s longline fishery catches lancetfish at about the same rate at tuna, but lancetfish aren’t very tasty so they don’t make it back to shore and on to your plate.  They’re pretty interesting fish, though.  Scientists at PIFSC are working with colleagues form the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH Manoa), the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), and Stanford University to answer several questions about lancetfish.

How many species of lancetfish are there in the North Pacific?

Until recently, we thought the only lancetfish in the North Pacific was the long-nose lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox).  However, recent work has shown that lancetfish seem to come in two distinct sizes (shown below), which has us thinking there might be a second species present, too.  We’ll be examining 100 lancetfish collected for us by the PIRO Observer Program to see whether this is the case.  To determine the actual species of each fish, we look at a number of characteristics.  For example, we note the shape and size of their fins and measure where on the body the dorsal fin starts.  We also look at the pattern of spots, or melanophores, on the fishes’ skin and take tissue samples for DNA analysis.

What can lancetfish teach us about the ecosystem?

One pretty amazing thing about lancetfish is their stomach contents.  Unlike what you might find in a human or tuna stomach (unrecognizable mush), the contents of a lancetfish’s stomach is largely undigested.  This means we can open up their stomachs and see exactly what kind of fish and other marine organisms they’ve been eating.  By looking at enough stomachs, we can get an idea of what lancetfish, and other fish like tuna, are eating.  Knowing what fish eat helps scientists understand the ecosystem as a whole and project how it might change in the future.  We’re also studying the tissues in lancetfishes’ digestive tracts to learn more about how they digest their prey (see below).

Why do there only seem to be two sizes of lancetfish?

Most species of fish caught by the longline fishery span a range of sizes.  This is because fish grow larger as they get older.  Oddly, the lancetfish seem to fall into two distinct size groups.  Even if this is because there are two different species of lancetfish, it still leaves us with questions about how quickly they grow, how big they get, and how long they live.  We’ll be looking at their ear bones, or otoliths, to help answer these questions.  Otoliths have rings in them that scientists can use to age fish, similar to how you might count the rings in a tree to see how old it is.  Unlike trees, though, otoliths are tiny.  Lancetfish otoliths are about the size of a grain of sand.

This blog post is brought to you by Team Lancetfish: Phoebe Woodworth-Jefcoats (PIFSC – ESD), Anela Choy (MBARI), Jeff Drazen (UH Manoa), Joe O’Malley (PIFSC – FRMD), Elan Portner (Stanford), and Jenn Wong-Ala (NOAA Hollings Scholar).  Want to know more about lancetfish?  Send your questions to  We’ll answer them in future blog posts as our lancetfish work unfolds.


Lancetfish seem to come in two sizes, bigger fish about 4 feet long (left) and smaller fish about 2 feet long (right).



Clockwise from top left: One characteristic we use to identify specific species is the shape of the dorsal fin.  We also note which dorsal fin ray is the longest and how far back on the body the dorsal fin starts.  The size, coloration, and number of melanophores on the skin are another characteristic we examine.  Muscle tissue is used for DNA analysis.



Jeff Drazen (UH Manoa) and Anela Choy (MBARI) work on removing a lancetfish’s digestive tract for further study.

Posted in Ecosystems and Oceanography, Uncategorized

Big Tale of Dwarf Sperm Whales in the Marianas

By Marie C. Hill, Andrea R. Bendlin, Allan D. Ligon, Adam Ü, and Karlina Merkens

After spending five windy days working off Rota (21-25 May 2016) where we encountered spinner dolphins, spotted dolphins and a Mesoplodont beaked whale, we flew to Guam to finish off our Marianas survey effort (28 May -5 June).  We were greeted with incredibly calm conditions and a new species for us off Guam!  Our first two encounters were with dwarf sperm whales (Kogia sima), some of which we actually re-sighted six days later.  We’ve encountered a dwarf sperm whale off Saipan in 2011 but have not seen any others until now.  The dwarf sperm whale is a very cryptic species that is difficult to find (unless conditions are very calm) and difficult to approach (they are very shy of boats).  This year’s encounters were particularly exciting because we collected a biopsy sample, as well as acoustic recordings!  It’s exciting because dwarf sperm whales have rarely been biopsy sampled, and there has been only one other acoustic recording of visually-confirmed dwarf sperm whales in the wild!  In order to collect the recordings, we used a free floating hydrophone and recorder attached to a buoy and flag.  We call it the CARB (Compact Acoustic Recording Buoy).  At one point during our fourth dwarf sperm whale encounter a mom-calf pair swam directly toward, then passed by the CARB (Figure 1).  The acoustic recordings are of excellent quality and match up well with the only other recording of this species, which came from the Bahamas.  They will go a long way toward helping us understand and monitor Kogia species.

Figure 1_Kogia and CARB

Figure 1: Dwarf sperm whale mother and calf (inset) swim close to our acoustic recorder (photo credit: Adam Ü).

While surveying off Guam we also encountered the dwarf sperm whale’s much larger cousin, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).  The group of nine individuals included a newborn calf (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Sperm whales off Guam’s west side, north of Orote Pt. (photo credit: Marie Hill).

During the sperm whale encounter we collected three biopsy samples (for genetic studies) and deployed a satellite tag (ID 141723) on an individual (to look at movements and spatial use).  The tag (ID 141712) that we deployed on a sperm whale off Saipan on 17 May was still transmitting on 10 June.  These tags are the first ones that we have deployed on sperm whales in the Marianas.  The tracks of the two individuals have come close but have not overlapped (Figure 3).  The sperm whale with tag 141712 spent several weeks north of Saipan and went as far north as Guguan. On 10 June, it was just southwest of Farallón de Medinilla.  Our Guam sperm whale, tagged on 31 May, spent several days off the west side of Guam and then traveled north.  It was approximately 50 miles west of Saipan on 10 June.

Figure3_Sperm whale tag tracks

Figure 3: Tracks of two satellite tagged sperm whales. Tag 141712 (red squares) was deployed on 17 May 2016 and tag 141723 (white squares) was deployed on 31 May 2016. Last tag locations pictured were on 10 June 2016.

Another first for us this year was the deployment of a satellite tag on a pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) off Guam.  People sometimes mistake spotted dolphins and spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) because they are similar in size and color.  Two features of spotted dolphins that make them easy to distinguish from spinner dolphins is the white tip of the rostrum and presence of spots on the bodies of adults (both features become more pronounced as individuals age) (Figure 4).


Figure 4: A pantropical spotted dolphin. Note the white tip of the rostrum and the spots on the body (photo credit: Adam Ü).

The spotted dolphin that we tagged has moved up and down the west side of Guam and even went out to 11-Mile Reef (Figure 5).  On 10 June, it was just south of Agat Bay.

Figure5_Spotted dolphin tag track

Figure 5: Satellite tag track of a pantropical spotted dolphin (3-10 June 2016).

Finally!  We found short-finned pilot whales again!  We didn’t encounter them during our 2015 small-boat surveys.  While working off Guam this year we had four sightings of short-finned pilot whales, during which we re-sighted individuals between days.   Most of the individuals are in our photo-identification catalog.  Some of these individuals have not been seen together before.  One of our favorites also showed up on the last day of our surveys (5 June).  “Chop Top” (Figure 6) is an adult male that we first photographed off Rota in 2011.  We last saw him in 2013 off Guam and were worried we wouldn’t see him again.


Figure 6: Male short-finned pilot whale named “Chop Top” seen on 5 June 2016 for the first time since 2013 (photo credit: Marie Hill).

During three of our four short-finned pilot whale encounters we deployed six satellite tags. Since tagging, some of the individuals have stayed in close proximity to one another while others have split up, come together and split up again (Figure 7).  By having tags out on multiple individuals we can get a better idea of the spatial use of the population of short-finned pilot whales that we encounter off the southernmost islands in the Marianas.  We’re hoping that one of these tags breaks the previous record for longest duration (235 days).

Figure7_Pilot whale tag locations

Figure 7: Locations of satellite tags deployed on short-finned pilot whales encountered off Guam (29 May, 2 June, and 5 June 2016).

All survey operations including satellite tagging, photo-id, and biopsy sampling are conducted under NMFS permit 15240. Funding was provided by the NOAA Fisheries and the Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet. We would like to thank the vessel owners and captains of the Asakaze and Ten27, the Guam NOAA Fisheries field office, and all of our volunteers during the surveys.

Posted in Protected Species | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,