We are sailing across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette. 

The Sette is a working ship: Researchers undertake numerous scientific endeavors; engineers ensure the engines pulse and drive us forward; officers keep us sailing safely; stewards create amazing meals and keep everyone happy; and the crew makes sure that everything else that needs to happen, happens.

On this working ship, the low rumble of engines vibrates throughout the whole structure.  The air is tinged with the smell of diesel, the lifeblood of our ship.  There are incessant bangs and clangs, the chorus of a gently rocking ship.

And then there is the laughter, barked commands, and chatter of the diverse individuals that have found themselves on this tiny ship in the middle of the Pacific.  It is a group of people with a shared mission, which turns strangers into teammates and teammates into family.

This is what life was like on the ship until just recently.

But now, new smells have permeated the air, and they are not sweet smells.  New sounds reverberate throughout the ship at odd hours, but they are far from peaceful or soothing.  With this odor and cacophony, it is hard to get enough sleep.  And yet we are eternally grateful, for these are the smells and sounds of hope, the stench and clamor of dreams coming true.

There are monk seals on board!

With the world-class rehabilitation facilities at the Hawaiian monk seal hospital, Ke Kai Ola, our research vessel has become a kind of ambulance staffed with first responders who bring seals on the brink of starvation to salvation, and then return them to the wild.  This research cruise, like many of our recent cruises, has been busy with rehabilitation activities.

Our first patient on the cruise took us by surprise.  It was the second day of our mission, and we deployed our team for a day to Ni’ihau to survey for monk seals.  One of the survey teams came across a tiny emaciated female pup; the story is told here.  This little one, which the folks on Ni’ihau named Kilo, is doing well so far.

Hawaiian monk seals, Pearl and Hermes eating

Hawaiian monk seals, Pearl and Hermes, eating fish.

Several days later, we loaded Pearl and Hermes, two recent patients of Ke Kai Ola, onto the ship.  Their three month stay in the hospital served them well.  Gone were the tiny pups we had brought in — the two seals that found themselves on the aft deck of the Sette were blubbery masses ready for freedom.  We just have to get them back to their natal atoll.  A good narrative on what it is like to take care of these portly passengers can be found here.

But now, I would like to introduce you to a new passenger aboard the Sette.

Earlier this week, we diverted our mission at Mokumanamana to head directly to French Frigate Shoals (FFS), where team members had found an emaciated female pup in need of rehabilitation.  We weren’t scheduled to stop at FFS until the return leg of the cruise — some 14 days later — but the FFS team was doubtful the pup would last that long.  Though our stop at Mokumanamana was critical for a few reasons, we are in the business of saving seals, so the island would have to wait.

Green Sea Turtle and Hawaian monk seal (AG18) on beach

On the right, Ke Kai Ola rehab candidate, Hawaiian monk seal, AG18 also known as Ama’ama.

A day later, we arrived at FFS and were greeted by a small vessel carrying four hardened field biologists and one tragically tiny pup.  The small boat pulled alongside the Sette and the FFS team quickly handed the pup up to the waiting crew.  AG18 had embarked, we thought, until we heard a shout from the FFS team over the railing: “Her name is Ama’ama.” So, Ama’ama had embarked.

(Side note: Ama’ama is Hawaiian for striped mullet, a fish.  Ama, as she’s called for short, was born on Mullet Island at FFS and now bears the name of her home.)

We have been holding off on sharing Ama’ama with you, as she was in pretty rough shape and the first day or two of rehabilitation is always critical for any seal.  As can be expected, she needed hydration, electrolytes, and food, but she also needed rest and quiet — a delicate balance. It had been a nervous period for all on board, but we think we are through the worst of it.  And though there is much to tell about her care, we will save that for another day.  For now, we just want to report that she is doing well.

And our family on the Sette is doing well, too.  Every morning we are greeted by the calls of Ama, Pearl, and Hermes that float across the deck.  They remind us of the awesome honor and responsibility we have in this grand challenge to recover monk seals.

Challenge accepted.

Posted in From PIFSC Director's Office, Protected Species Division (PSD) | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

NOAA’s A.R.C. Sets Sail: The Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment and Recovery Camps Cruise is Headed Back to the NWHI

Aloha from on board the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette as we undertake our mission to help the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Our cruise, formally known as SE-15-06, is to support our annual Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment and Recovery Camps, a critical piece in our efforts to understand monk seal ecology and population trends and undertake a variety of actions to help increase monk seal survival.

The field season stretches over the summer and is usually 3-4 months in duration and is bookended on each side with a research cruise. The first is to deploy the camps and the second, the one we are currently embarked on, is to recover our field research teams. Our teams have been deployed at 5 of the 6 main monk seal breeding locations in the NWHI: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll. Researchers have spent the summer collecting all the data (animal id’s, births, deaths, and more) to help estimate the population and intervening where they can to help save seals (disentangling, providing medical attention, etc.). These researchers are our first line of attack for monk seal conservation efforts. But as the number of new births dwindle, food stores shrink, and the days grow shorter, it is time for our field teams to come home.

So we find ourselves pushing northwestward through calm seas and clear skies to collect or teammates. But our mission is more than just picking up our colleagues, we are here to save monk seals as well. Over the next 3 weeks we will be undertaking several activities to help monk seal recovery. We are currently transporting 2 seals that have been undergoing rehabilitation at the Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital in Kona. After several months of fattening up, they are headed back home to the wild. We will also be on the lookout for young seals that could benefit from care at Ke Kai Ola as well (more on that in another blog post). We will be testing unmanned aerial systems (drones to many) to see how they can help us in our efforts to count and assess seals, detect marine debris, and determine the threat of sea level rise to these fragile remove islands. And there is so much more.

Over the next few weeks we will keep you updated on all of the adventures, rescues and new science happening aboard this modern day NOAA’s A.R.C.

Posted in From PIFSC Director's Office, Protected Species Division (PSD)

Marianas 2015 Summer Cetacean Surveys: Rota Delivers! (August 28 – September 3)

by Marie Hill, Andrea Bendlin, Adam Ü, and Allan Ligon

After two stormy weeks off Guam, we decided to go to Rota for a week to see what we might find there.  In the past, we have had good luck with sightings off Rota so our expectations were high.  We are happy to report that Rota not only lived up to, but exceeded our expectations this year!

Our first day off of Rota we encountered Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) and a Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni) and collected biopsy samples during each encounter.  We have seen Blainville’s beaked whales off of Rota before but this was the first time that we collected a tissue sample.  Last year we encountered a single adult male. This year’s sighting included a different adult male and three to four sub-adult/female individuals.


Male Blainville’s beaked whale encountered off Rota on August 28, 2015 (photo: Marie Hill).

The Bryde’s whale was another first for us.  We have known that they occur in the Mariana Archipelago from acoustic recordings on our Tinian HARP (High-frequency Acoustic Recording Package) and from shipboard surveys conducted in 2007 and this June, but we haven’t seen them during our small boat surveys that we have been conducting since 2010.  Two days after our first Bryde’s whale encounter we had another with a different individual and collected a second biopsy sample.  We then had a third encounter on Rota Bank as we transited down to Guam from Rota on September 3, 2015.


Bryde’s whale encountered off Rota on August 28, 2015 (photo: Adam Ü).

While working off Rota we also had multiple bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) encounters. During two encounters we had a number of individuals that we know from our photo-identification catalog. We were particularly excited to see one individual that we named “Changey” and have been tracking since 2012.  The name was given because this individual acquired an obvious new mark on its fin between 2012 and 2013 and was the first individual to do so in our bottlenose dolphin catalog.  “Changey” was first photographed by HDR off Saipan in March 2012.  In 2013, we photographed “Changey” off Guam on June 30 and then off Rota on July 9 and 10.  We didn’t see “Changey” last year so it was great to see him/her two days in a row this year on September 1 and 2.  We haven’t collected a biopsy sample from “Changey”, so his/her gender is undetermined.


“Changey” over the years. In 2013, “Changey” acquired new marks in the middle of the dorsal fin trailing edge. (Photos: Mark Deakos, Marie Hill, Adam Ü).

During the bottlenose dolphin encounter on September 2 we deployed a satellite tag on an individual that is also in our photo-identification catalog.  Our only other encounter with this individual was off of Saipan on July 17, 2013 during which we collected a biopsy sample. We therefore know that this is a male.


Male bottlenose dolphin satellite tagged off Rota on September 2, 2015 (Photo: Adam Ü).

The satellite tag is a Wildlife Computers SPLASH10 and will collect information on the location, as well as the diving statistics of this bottlenose dolphin.   Since we deployed the tag he has made two round-trips between Rota and Guam and was off Rota Bank on Monday September 07, 2015.  So far, his maximum dive depth has been 625 m.

Figure5-Bottlenose dolphin satellite tag track_Sept2-7

Track of a satellite tag deployed on a bottlenose dolphin off Rota. (September 2-7, 2015).

One really interesting thing about bottlenose dolphins in the Marianas is that most of the individuals from which we have collected biopsy samples have some Fraser’s dolphin (Lagenodelphis hosei) genetic material. We have collected another eleven biopsy samples from bottlenose dolphins to investigate this further.  Nine of the samples came from an encounter with individuals that we have not seen before.  It will be exciting to see how they fit in to the Mariana bottlenose dolphin population.

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.


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Giant strides forward to improve fisheries management in Indonesia

By Megan Moews-Asher

Let us begin with the “why”…

Biking1.Fish Market KendariAt the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the NOAA Fisheries’ Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) team has been working with colleagues in Indonesia since 2011 to help improve the country’s fisheries management. During this time, NOAA Fisheries and partners have been striving to find the best ways to communicate “why” Indonesia (and other countries) would want to move toward an EAFM—a more holistic way of managing fisheries that balances the needs (and impacts) of the people with that of the environment through good governance.

Each time we have visited Indonesia, we have seen the “why” firsthand. We have seen it in every man, woman and child. Whether rich or incredibly poor, no matter the religion or background, from local community to national government, we have always been greeted with genuine smiles and a sense of welcome. As an archipelagic nation with a rapidly growing population, Indonesia’s remarkable people rely on their fisheries in so many ways. Seeing those smiles and all of the poverty (yet hope), watching how hard they work to feed their families, and seeing just how much they rely on the fisheries for their food security and livelihoods—that is the “why.”

4.LivelihoodsOf course, there are many other reasons behind the “why,” such as—what about that delicious fish you ate the other night? Chances are, it may very well have come from Indonesia, which is the second largest fisheries nation in terms of production and a growing exporter of fisheries products to the United States. With demands for fisheries products increasing worldwide and our current abilities to meet them unsustainable, this does not only impact Indonesia, but other countries including the U.S. And to give yet another reason, let’s take a brief glimpse underwater. As part of the Coral Triangle, Indonesia has some of the highest biological diversity of marine species in the world. Its amazing diversity is almost magical—enough said. One could go on and on in terms of the “why.”

The problem is, the “why” is being severely impacted, from the individual people and their communities, to fish sizes and abundance, to the complex and diverse habitats that the fish rely on. This is where Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF) has asked for help and where NOAA’s assistance comes in. The Indonesian government is working with NOAA to improve its fisheries management toward improved food security, livelihoods, sustainability, economic gain, and biodiversity conservation through an EAFM. When we first started coming to Indonesia, nationwide fisheries management was severely limited and we were discouraged to even speak the words “ecosystem approach to fisheries management.”



Under the leadership and vision of Pak Gellwyn Jusuf, Director General of Capture Fisheries, Pak Aryo Hanggono, Director of Fisheries Resources at the time (now Senior Advisor to the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Ibu Susi Pudjiastuti), his predecessor, Pak Toni Ruchimat, and their dedicated staff led by Ibu Erni Widjajanti, times are changing. With assistance from Indonesia’s EAFM National Working Group and partners, bolstered by NOAA’s technical assistance, Indonesia can now proudly say that they have developed 11 fisheries management plans (RPPs), spanning the entire nation and based largely on an EAFM. They further plan to increase stakeholder engagement and adapt the plans as they continue moving forward with implementation. But it doesn’t stop there! To support implementation and adaptation of the RPPs and future fisheries management needs nationwide, MMAF is now working toward development of Regional Fisheries Commissions, based on the U.S. Fisheries Management Council structure.

Pak Aryo Hanggono, Director of Fisheries Resources.

Pak Aryo Hanggono, Senior Advisor to the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

From August 19–24, NOAA Fisheries’ Rusty Brainard, Wesley Patrick, and Megan Moews-Asher met with Pak Aryo Hanggono and staff, the EAFM National Working Group, the Indonesia Marine and Climate Support Project, USAID, and partners to discuss the development of Indonesia’s fisheries management governance structure. Among the examples provided during the workshop, the NOAA team presented the history, development, and lessons learned from the U.S. Fisheries Management Council system, its process and supporting structures. As a result of these discussions, the workshop participants, led by Pak Aryo and Ibu Erni, developed a structure similar to the U.S. Council system, but more applicable to Indonesia, to present to the Director General of Capture Fisheries and in anticipation of obtaining a future Ministerial Decree. The development of four Regional Fisheries Commissions across the nation will be yet another big and exciting step forward in improving fisheries management in Indonesia.

Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, EAFM National Working Group, and USAID work closely with NOAA Fisheries' Rusty Brainard, Wesley Patrick, and Megan Moews-Asher to draft Regional Fisheries Commission structure based on U.S. Council process.

Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, EAFM National Working Group, and USAID work closely with NOAA Fisheries’ Rusty Brainard, Wesley Patrick, and Megan Moews-Asher to draft Regional Fisheries Commission structure based on U.S. Council process.

A key element of the Commission structure will be the inclusion of important stakeholders, not only from national and provincial governments (including other directorates and ministries), but also representatives from small and large-scale fisheries, non-governmental organizations, and even traditional leaders. These stakeholders will collaborate on the development of fisheries management plans, decision-making, and co-management for each region. They also plan to include advisory groups and public consultation throughout the process—another important step forward.

We have since learned that Director General Pak Gellwyn “gave high appreciation on regionalization of Indonesia’s fisheries management areas and the design of the proposed commission structure.” Furthermore, led by the spirited and resilient Ibu Erni, a roadmap to begin this process has already been drafted. They have a long road ahead of them, but thanks to the hard work of many dedicated partners, Indonesia is making great strides toward sustainable fisheries management.

Posted in Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Marianas 2015 Summer Cetacean Surveys: Guam (August 13-19)

by Andrea Bendlin, Marie Hill, Allan Ligon, and Adam Ü

It’s been a windy and rainy one for the first week of our yearly summer surveys in the Marianas!  This is our sixth year of conducting surveys for cetaceans around the southernmost islands of the Mariana Archipelago.  We were originally planning to start our efforts with 20 days of field work on Saipan, but due to the devastating effects of recent Typhoon Soudelor, we’ve decided to cancel our time there and spend more time on Guam.  So far we’ve had five days on the water and have sighted three different species:  spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata), spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris), and pygmy killer whales (Feresa attenuata).

We often see spotted dolphins near some of the FAD (Fish Aggregating Device) buoys several miles west of Guam, and our sightings this year so far have been no exception.  Over the summer, we have had Emily Laub, our PIFSC Young Scientist Opportunity (PYSO) intern, analyzing photos from previous years to determine feasibility of developing a photo catalog of the spotted dolphins here in the Marianas and analyzing photos for unusual scarring and cookie cutter wounds.  During two of our three encounters, we were able to collect dorsal fin-ID photos and overall body condition photos to continue this effort.


A group of spotted dolphins. One of the animals is missing the top part of its fin. (photo credit: Adam Ü)

Our most interesting encounter thus far involves the third species of our trip:  pygmy killer whales.  In the six years we have been doing surveys here, this is the only group of pygmy killer whales we have seen off Guam.  We have seen the same group for three years in a row now!  When first seen in June 2013, the group numbered eight individuals.  In April of 2014, there was a new calf seen in the group, bringing the group number up to nine.  This calf still swims in close association with its mother.  Over the past year, it has obtained several (very small) nicks on its fin that will help make it more easily identifiable in the future, especially once it separates from its mother.  This year, there are now 11 individuals in the group, including another calf that has probably been born sometime in the last 6 months.   We are excited about being able to learn more about this group over the long-term future!


Pygmy killer whale mother and calf (photo credit: Adam Ü)

We have had several “weather days” during our effort so far, mainly due to the significant monsoonal energy this year in the western Pacific. “The sea was angry this week my friends…”

Fig 3_radar picture

Two typhoons (Goni and Atsani) are currently spinning in the western North Pacific. Atsani is pulling monsoon weather up from the south into the Marianas.

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 US Navy, Pacific Fleet.

Posted in Protected Species Division (PSD)

Socioeconomic Monitoring for The Micronesia Challenge: Measuring Progress in Effective Conservation

By Supin Wongbusarakum

Traditional home in Yap, Micronesia.

The importance of socioeconomic monitoring for coastal management and conservation is becoming increasingly acknowledged around the world. Without understanding the impacts on people and communities that depend on natural resources, the effectiveness of conservation programs can easily be questioned. In the past decades, different tools and methods have been developed to help guide monitoring efforts.

Since its launch in 2007, by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme, the Socioeconomic Monitoring Guidelines for Coastal Managers in Pacific Island Countries (SEM-Pasifika) has been used to help develop capacity in designing and conducting SEM-Pasifika_coversocioeconomic assessments in many countries throughout the Pacific Islands. In Micronesia, NOAA social scientists have worked with multiple jurisdictional and regional partners to establish and strengthen socioeconomic monitoring efforts among the Micronesia Challenge countries: Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. It is important to connect social, economic, and biological monitoring to accurately assess the progress of the Micronesia Challenge’s goal to effectively conserve at least 30% of the near-shore marine resources and 20% of the terrestrial resources across Micronesia by 2020.

Sarigan Island in the Northern Marianas.

The Micronesia Challenge’s 2nd Socioeconomic Measures Workshop took place in Guam from June 10 to 12, 2015. Brooke Nevitt of the Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance, Michael Lameier of the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service’s Habitat Conservation Division, Berna Gorong of The Nature Conservancy, and Supin Wongbusarakum from the NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division served as co-facilitators and resource experts. The workshop brought together representatives from national, regional, and local government agencies with non-governmental organizations and potential funding agencies.

Participants in the Micronesia Challenge’s 2nd Socioeconomic Measures Workshop.

Participants in the Micronesia Challenge’s 2nd Socioeconomic Measures Workshop.

Workshop participants reviewed previous and current socioeconomic monitoring efforts in the region and then identified gaps and steps to improve and sustain monitoring at all levels in Micronesia. They also initiated a discussion on how to integrate socioeconomic and biological monitoring to better understand the impacts of conservation and natural resource management. To support their unanimous agreement on the importance of socioeconomic monitoring in the region, they established a “Core Micronesia Socioeconomic Monitoring Team” with representatives from all jurisdictions. The team will reconvene from September 21 to October 3, 2015 to further build the group’s social science knowledge and training skills and to initiate development of socioeconomic monitoring plans for selected sites in Micronesia.

Posted in Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,