Made ya look!

By Rachel Holton

Visual observers are vital to locating cetaceans (whales and dolphins) during the ongoing Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS). The role of an observer is to scan the surface of the water using 25-powered binoculars that we call “big eyes.” From the big eyes mounted on the ship’s flying bridge, the observers can see up to 7.5 nautical miles from the ship, although they usually focus within 3 nautical miles, where cetacean sightings are less likely to be missed. A right- and left-side observer each scans 90 degrees, looking for cetaceans from the ship’s beam to its bow, a motion that is repeated multiple times over a 40-minute shift. The center observer watches ahead of the ship generally without binoculars and records data. Altogether, the observer team is scanning the water 180 degrees ahead of the ship for animals, suspicious splashes, blows, or flocks of birds that might reveal cetaceans feeding below.

HICEAS Senior Observer Ernesto Vázquez uses “big eye” binoculars to search for cetaceans. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Staci DeSchryver

When the visual team spots a cetacean group, the next step is to figure out what species it is and how many individuals are in the group.  While the big eyes are the main binoculars used when searching for cetaceans, as the ship approaches a sighted group, the team switches to smaller 7-powered handheld binoculars that offer a wider field of view at closer distances. If the visual team needs another look once the ship passes the animals, the ship can be turned to pass by the group again or to collect additional information, including photographs or skin samples. When weather conditions and animal behavior allow, a small boat may be launched from the ship to approach the animals for more detailed data collection.

HICEAS Senior Observer Paula Olson keeps an eye on a group of sighted cetaceans. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Staci DeSchryver

When asked how visual observers prepare for a survey of this size and importance, visual observer Andrea Bendlin responds with, “a LOT of experience.” A visual observer needs to be able to distinguish between a white cap and a splash from a dolphin. “When it’s windy, which is most of the time, you see a lot of white caps, but did you just see a white cap go backwards? That would be the splash from a dolphin instead,” explains Andrea. Andrea describes how there might also be a slight glare or sparkle on the water that could be the back of an animal and be easily overlooked.

Once distant splashes that caught an observer’s eye, these melon-headed whales come into full view when approached by the ship during HICEAS. Photo taken under research permit by NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

When the visual team sees a group of cetaceans, each person is required to make an estimate of the number of individuals in the group. The team members write their estimates in their own private notebooks and don’t talk about their estimates with their teammates. The numbers are kept a secret so that individual observers don’t change their tendencies in how they estimate group size over time. Early on, the observers are taught how to count cetaceans. Many observers have been calibrated against aerial images of cetacean groups, where the number seen in the aerial image is compared to the estimate from each observer in order to determine the amount of error in the estimate. Since observers usually underestimate how many cetaceans they see in a group, the calibration results can be used to make the group size estimates more accurate.

HICEAS Observers Amy Van Cise, Andrea Bendlin, and Allan Ligon independently record group size estimates after a cetacean sighting. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Staci DeSchryver

Although sightings are made by the visual team, an acoustic team is simultaneously listening and independently detecting cetaceans that are vocalizing underwater. Once a sighting has been made, communication between the two teams opens up, and the acoustics team is often able to help the visual team keep track of sighted cetaceans that are no longer at the surface. However, the acoustics team does a lot more than provide support to the visual observers. To learn more about the role of acoustics during HICEAS, stay tuned for our next blog post.

Until then, you can keep up with our high seas adventures on the HICEAS website!

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This is the end, beautiful friend, the end

by Molly Timmers

After three days of travel across space and time, we arrived in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. This country is located about an hour’s flight northwest from Darwin, Australia across the Timor Sea. It shares its border with Indonesia, which occupies the western half of the island of Timor. Unbeknownst to most, Timor-Leste only just recently became a sovereign nation after years of struggle and resistance to an Indonesian occupation. Having gained its independence in 2002, this country is one of the newest countries in the world. It is also one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world for coral reefs.


Reef at Atauro Island, Timor-Leste (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Molly Timmers).

Timor-Leste resides within the Coral Triangle, a region known as the center of marine biodiversity. As a result of its geographical location between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and its geological history, the Coral Triangle has the highest coral and fish diversity in the world.  It hosts 76% (605) of the world’s coral species (798) and 37% (2228) of known coral reef fish species (6000). This incredibly diverse region includes Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and of course, Timor-Leste.


Map of the six countries of the Coral region. Solid line shows scientific boundary of the Coral Triangle (Veron et al., 2009). Dashed line shows the Exclusive Economic Zones of the six countries (Image courtesy of Coral Triangle Secretariat).

As a new country, Timor-Leste began working toward developing management strategies to protect and conserve their coral reefs and the animals that live within. However, they found it challenging to proceed because scientific information about their nearshore coastal resources was limited. Thus, in 2011, the Government of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) requested assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and NOAA to support them in addressing the following 5 questions:

  • Where are Timor-Leste’s nearshore marine resources?
  • What are Timor-Leste’s nearshore resources?
  • How are coastal resources changing over time?
  • What are the threats causing those changes?
  • What approaches are needed to help manage and conserve nearshore resources over the long-term?

TIMOR_COVER_image As a result, USAID requested the assistance of NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. With over 15 years of experience mapping and monitoring the coral reef ecosystems and their associated threats across U.S. Pacific coral reefs, CREP agreed to assist Timor-Leste in their efforts to address these questions by conducting baseline surveys over the period 2012 to 2016 under the partnership agreement between MAF, USAID, and NOAA. Last month, we returned to Timor-Leste to conclude this partnership by delivering the Final Report to our Timor-Leste partners and working with them on how to utilize the collected data to inform ecosystem-based coastal resource management planning in Timor-Leste.

On the 26th of June, we presented the Final Report produced by our program in an all-day workshop event and provided a separate training on how to use the data in a geospatial format (aka, mapping software) the following day.  The all-day workshop was held at MAF’s new conference center.  Over 70 people from 19 agencies attended, including: Estanislau Aleixo da Silva, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries; Ms. Karen Stanton, the U.S. Ambassador to Timor-Leste; and Jose Ramos-Horta, a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and one of Timor-Leste’s former presidents who signed the agreement for Timor-Leste to become one of the six Coral Triangle Initiative countries. The U.S. Embassy graciously provided their interpreter who translated in real-time between Tetun (the locale Timorese language) and English through wireless ear bud systems that enabled us to seamlessly share our presentations and effectively engage our audience in question and answer sessions.


Photograph from the all-day workshop hosted by the Government of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), led by NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (NOAA CREP), and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). From left to right: Acacio Guterres, Director General for Fisheries (MAF); Raimundo Mau, Program Manager, Conservation International; former Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta; Estanislau Aleixo da Silva, Minister of MAF; Karen Stanton, U.S. Ambassador; Diana Putman, USAID Mission Director; Molly Timmers (NOAA CREP); Flavia da Silva (USAID); and Annette DesRochers (NOAA CREP).

Ambassador Stanton opened the workshop and Minister da Silva followed with his opening remarks. To symbolize the closure of this 5-year partnership, we presented copies of the Final Report and detailed scientific maps to Ambassador Stanton who then proceeded to hand them to the Minister.  Once the symbolic hand-off was complete, the workshop commenced.

Map presentation

U.S. Ambassador Karen Stanton presents the map posters prepared by the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program to Estanislau Aleixo da Silva, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries.

We started with a series of presentations on the project background and key findings. This was followed by a nearly two-hour question and answer session and a delicious late lunch due to the high-level of engagement by the participants. After lunch, more detailed presentations ensued. We framed our presentations around MAF’s 5 original questions and shared in more detail the work that we did to try and answer their questions. To make this information as accessible as possible, the report and data are freely available and hosted online at NOAA’s Coral Reef Information System. Once we finished with all we had to share, we had another question and answer session followed by closing remarks made by Diana Putman, the USAID Timor-Leste Mission Director, and Acacio Guterres, Director General for Fisheries (MAF).

The following day we conducted a hands-on training for MAF employees on how to use the data we produced for MAF. They learned how to access and convert the survey data so it could be displayed in mapping software with other spatial data, and how they could “ask questions” of the data using the mapping tools. Participants learned how to work with data in new ways that they previously didn’t know were possible.

For our final day, we spent the afternoon meeting with our partners answering last minute questions; this officially brought an end to our partnership. It is with such sweet sorrow that we see this project come to an end. Many of us at CREP have spent time in Timor-Leste over the past five years helping with this project and found Timor-Leste to be a home away from home. The Timorese are a gracious, kind, and motivated people. They want to protect and conserve their coral reefs and hopefully in time, they will have the capacity themselves to establish their own long-term monitoring program just as we did 15 years ago here in the U.S. Pacific Islands. We hope the work that we’ve done and the time we’ve invested will get them started down the path towards our mutual goal to protect and conserve coral reefs ecosystems.


Shallow reef along the west side of Atauro Island, Timor-Leste (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Kevin Lino).

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What does it take to prepare for a 187-day research mission?

By Rachel Holton

The 2017 Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS, pronounced “high-seas”) is a 187-day survey for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and seabirds within the U.S. waters of the Hawaiian Islands. The goals of this project are to estimate how many cetaceans are in Hawaii, examine their population structure, and understand their habitat.

Early morning hustle and bustle getting the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette ready for HICEAS. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Rachel Holton

HICEAS is large, multi-disciplinary effort that includes several types of data collection, which means that in order for things to run smoothly there has to be a well thought out plan. Teams from the Pacific Islands and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers have been meeting and coordinating for several months to design the survey and develop data collection protocols.

A crane loads heavy gear, here the net reel for retrieving an acoustic mooring, onto the Sette. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Rachel Holton

Two NOAA Ships, the Oscar Elton Sette and the Reuben Lasker, will house a team of over 25 scientists to collect data during HICEAS. The Sette (homeport: Pearl Harbor, Oahu) is used for a variety of projects near the Hawaiian Islands, which means that it is constantly being rearranged. Before the team can get underway, the ship needs to be equipped with all the right gizmos and gadgets relating to the HICEAS project.

The “wet lab” space on the Sette awaits organization, so that activities ranging from biopsy sample processing to hexacopter maintenance can occur seamlessly. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Rachel Holton

As HICEAS approached, it was all hands on deck to load the Sette. A loading schedule was created to allow enough time for different groups to load the ship. For example, the heavy equipment was scheduled for 9 a.m., and food delivery was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. This was to avoid a bottleneck of people and materials and prevent smashing the food deliveries with hefty gear!


HICEAS Chief Scientist, Erin Oleson (front right) and team members Kym Yano, Marie Hill, and Amanda Bradford (left to right) focus intently on setting up the big-eye binoculars that will be used to search for cetaceans during the survey. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Rachel Holton

Cranes are used to load four pairs of giant (“big-eye”) binoculars, the winch for the towed hydrophone array, crates of equipment, small boats, and other heavy gear, but a lot of packing and loading is done manually by the team of scientists preparing to live aboard the ship.  The equipment must be cleaned and greased to ensure that everything will work efficiently for the duration of the cruise. Planning and packing for a cruise of this size takes a lot of preparation.

HICEAS Lead Acoustician, Jennifer Keating, sets up the acoustics “cave” on the Sette to receive whale and dolphin sounds from the deep. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Rachel Holton

The Sette is now underway for HICEAS. While everyone gets their sea legs and gets back into the groove of ship life, the team tackles another aspect of getting large project underway- tackling equipment and software gremlins. Most of those sneaky noises, software bugs, and missing duct tape mysteries have now been worked out, and the preparations begin to set up the Lasker in San Diego before their journey to Hawaii to join the HICEAS mission.

To learn more more about our high seas adventures, check out the HICEAS website!

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Philippines-U.S. Exchange Knowledge in Marine Resource Management

by Megan Moews-Asher

A school of sardines above a coral reef in Cebu, Philippines (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Megan Moews-Asher).

What makes a successful exchange span from across an agency to across nations? The people! Recently, a group of high-level and expert scientists, managers, policymakers, and law enforcement officials from the Philippines and U.S. came together in a government-to-government peer exchange in Honolulu. They discussed fisheries and marine resource management, science, and enforcement between the two countries.

This effort—supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and several offices within NOAA Fisheries—was a success because of each and every individual (and there were many) who played a part. According to both PIFSC Director Mike Seki and Regional Administrator Mike Tosatto from the Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), the exchange exceeded their expectations. Administrator Tosatto, Director Seki, and Office of Law Enforcement’s (OLE) Assistant Director Bill Pickering stated that they and many of their staff learned a lot through the exchange and were thankful to all who participated and made it such a success. In addition, Director Seki said that, “it was pretty impressive how it rolled out and that’s only through the engagement [of all parties], so I appreciate that.”


Group picture of particpants on June 26 (Day 1) of the Peer Exchange, including Philippines Undersecretary for Fisheries and Director of DA-BFAR Eduardo Gongona, Philippines Director of DENR-BMB Mundita Lim, and NOAA PIRO Regional Administrator Mike Tosatto, PIFSC Director Mike Seki, and Office of Law Enforcement Assistant Director Bill Pickering (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).


Sunset at Moalboal, Philippines (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Megan Moews-Asher).

It all started a few years ago with a vision. USAID’s Rebecca Guieb and Dr. Rusty Brainard of NOAA discussed the need for a scientific exchange between fisheries scientists from the Philippines and United States. Over time, the concept evolved into a much broader sharing of expertise and information that brought together the Philippines Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB), several NOAA Fisheries offices (PIFSC, PIRO, OLE, and General Counsel), as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, State of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, and other partners.

6.OLE_Vessel Inspection

Inspection of longline fishing vessel. Tour and discussion led by NOAA Office of Law Enforcement’s Joe Scarpa at Pier 38 (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

In an open and honest sharing of information, participants gave their valuable time as part of the “Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management and Conservation: A Partnership in Governance, Management, Science and Enforcement” Peer Exchange that included what the different countries and agencies are currently doing to manage fisheries and conserve biodiversity, the challenges they face, and some of the key lessons-learned over the years. As stated by DENR-BMB Director Dr. Mundita Lim, “the exchange provided an insight of interconnectivity among disciplines.”

As a result of everyone’s candidness and genuine desire to make the exchange a success, the dialogue led to thoughtful and engaging presentations and discussions, new partnerships, improved collaborations, and future plans. The surprise? On Friday, June 30, the Philippines Undersecretary for Fisheries and DA-BFAR Director Commodore Eduardo Gongona and DENR-BMB Director Lim signed a “Declaration of Commitment and Action Plan for the Management of Shared Resources.” The declaration is an unprecedented effort between their two agencies to increase collaboration in the management and protection of their shared marine resources and ocean ecosystems!


Declaration signing between the Philippines Director of DENR-BMB Mundita Lim and Philippines Undersecretary for Fisheries and Director of DA-BFAR Eduardo Gongona (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Throughout the exchange, Undersecretary Gongona and Director Lim discussed ways in which their bureaus can work together in the future. It is anticipated that this signing will lead to a memorandum of understanding between the two bureaus in the coming months. This is an exciting prospect for the Philippines, where marine resources are some of the most highly diverse in the world, where vast fisheries and marine resources face a multitude of threats, and of utmost importance, where people depend on these resources for their food security and livelihoods.

8.UFA Tour

Inspection of longline fishing vessel. Tour and discussion led by NOAA Office of Law Enforcement’s Joe Scarpa at Pier 38 (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Director Seki explained, “many of the Pacific Rim countries have very similar problems.  The sense of food security and conservation is pretty much ubiquitous throughout all of our countries that rely on marine resources and it is on us as scientists and managers to make sure that the resources are there tomorrow.” To add to this, Regional Administrator Tosatto stated, “it really was striking to see how we’re dealing with common problems coming from very different ground truths and yet we’re still solving problems in much the same way, and I think we can help each other.”

Special thanks to ALL involved, but in particular, to DA-BFAR Undersecretary Eduardo Gongona, DENR-BMB Director Mundita Lim, Mike Tosatto, Mike Seki, and Bill Pickering for their time, support and leadership. In addition, to sum up the significance of the exchange and the importance of working together toward sustainability and protection of our fisheries and marine resources, a few words from Bill Pickering, “It’s a trifecta, you have to have all three sides of the triangle [science, management, enforcement] in order to make it work. I don’t think any side is more important than the other because if one of them is missing, whether it be the science, the regulations, or the enforcement part, the whole thing falls apart.” Further addressing the Peer Exchange participants, he stated, “you’re proof of that, from listening to everything you all said.”

For more information:
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What Happens When A Poisonous Fish Gets Poisoned?

by Melanie Abecassis and Thierry Work

Between June and October 2010, beach-goers all around the Hawaiian Islands were discovering dead pufferfish on the beach or distressed in the ocean, puffed up and floating. In some cases, puffers were found in pairs with one fish biting and holding another. Occasional reports of puffers acting aggressively towards each other were received, and in one instance, a puffer was observed actively attacking snorkelers in the water. Thus started a five-year long episode of CSI-Fish-Hawai‘i.

Pufferfish are poisonous fish and are mostly solitary animals that rarely interact with other fish. Researchers collected sick puffers, held them temporarily in fish tanks and noticed they struggled to remain submerged, ending up “bobbing” at the surface. This phenomenon affected three species of pufferfish, mainly stripebelly puffers (Arothron hispidus) with a minority of spotted puffers (A. meleagris) and porcupine fish (Diodon hysteria). Populations of spotted puffers that are routinely monitored by scientists on the west coast of Hawai‘i Island declined precipitously starting in 2009, and remained low from 2010 onwards, whereas no evident population change was seen for porcupine fish or stripebelly puffers.

Because pufferfish are highly toxic, they are not typically targeted for human consumption (except in Japan, where the meat of some pufferfish is considered a delicacy. Called fugu, it is extremely expensive and only prepared by trained, licensed chefs who know that one bad cut means almost certain death for a customer). However, fish die-offs are important to investigate in tropical marine ecosystems because they are honest signals of environmental perturbations that could damage populations of native species or, in some cases, impact public health.

Using various laboratory tools, veterinarians and chemists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, Honolulu Field Station and NOAA’s National Ocean Service spent five years trying to identify the cause of death and discovered a series of marine toxins comprised of very small molecules that had never been identified before as the likely cause of this mass mortality. The toxins led to liver failure, acid base imbalance in the blood, and subsequent inability of fish to remain submerged. Their findings are striking in that 1) a marine toxin killed a species of fish that is, itself, toxic, 2) they identified a plausible mechanism (liver failure) to explain clinical signs of affected fish, and 3) this epidemic likely depleted some pufferfish populations. Scientists suspect the marine toxin was ingested, but the source remains a mystery.

PIFSC scientists collaborated on this project to investigate whether there were any abnormal ocean conditions that could have explained the timing of the fish die-off, but no clear link between ocean conditions and fish mortality was identified.

This study provides a template for marine fish kill investigations associated with marine toxins and highlights the need for more rapid and cost-effective methods to identify new marine toxins, particularly small molecules.

Read more: Pufferfish mortality associated with novel polar marine toxins in Hawaii

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Green Sea Turtle Nesting on Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Camryn D. Allen


Sea Turtle Research Team members Alex Reininger, Marylou Staman, and Jan Willem Staman prepare to depart for the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for five months, aboard NOAA Ship Sette (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Shawn Murakawa).

Meet the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Sea Turtle Research Team
Marylou Staman (1st season) – Marylou conducted three years of sea turtle research on Guam, and only saw 30 individual nesting females.  She’s seen almost 14x that number in the first few weeks of the nesting season!
Jan Willem Staman (1st season) – Jan is making the big transition from being a full-time soccer player with the Guam national team to a turtle researcher on the French Frigate Shoals team.
Alex Reininger (1st season) – Alex has mostly known nesting sea turtles from those that strand and wash up on Oahu. She’s enjoying seeing them alive and well on their nesting grounds.

East Island

Welcome to East Island, Elevation 8 ft and Population of two Northwestern Hawaiian Island researchers! (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers)

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sea turtle researcher team (Marylou, Alex, and Jan) arrived on French Frigate Shoals on May 30th to assess the number of nesting female green turtles because 96% of Hawaiian green turtle nesting occurs at French Frigate Shoals on East, Tern, Trig, and Gin Islands. Since then, they have identified 150 basking males and 416 nesting females. The peak of the nesting season has begun and the researchers have already seen 5 times the number of nesting females compared to the number of females seen for the whole season in 2016. So, 2017 will be a ‘whopper’ of a year, however, it is still less than our greatest nesting season with 811 nesting females on East Island (only) in 2014! Some of the turtles seen this year are turtles previously tagged on East Island during nesting events over 17 years ago and five other turtles seen this year were originally tagged during in-water captures in the main Hawaiian Islands (some as juveniles over 15 years ago)!

East Island Nesters

Green sea turtles nesting on remote atoll East Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).


“Hiwahiwa” or L2 has been nesting on East Island for 15 years. Her nesting migration to East Island in 2010 was tracked with the attached satellite tag (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).

We want to highlight one particular turtle, L2, tagged by Hawaiian green turtle expert George Balazs. L2 is also known as “Hiwahiwa” – meaning precious, favorite – by Mālama Na Honu volunteers on the North Shore of Oahu. Hiwahiwa was originally found alive on Laniakea beach, Oahu with an impact lesion to her shell in December of 2001. After 11 days of rehabilitation at NOAA facilities, Hiwahiwa was released back into the wild. A few months later, in June of 2002, she was seen nesting on East Island. Since 2002, Hiwahiwa has been seen basking in the sun every year at Laniakea beach and in 2009, she was outfitted with a satellite tag so that scientists could learn more about her migration patterns. During the nesting season in 2010, Hiwahiwa was re-sighted back on East Island digging a nest (see photos with satellite tag attached). Just a few days ago, the sea turtle research team saw her digging a nest; fifteen years after the first time she was seen nesting on East Island!

The research team return to Oahu at the end of the nesting season (September) and will bring with them valuable information to determine the number of green turtles in the Hawaiian population. This data is important for designating whether the species is threatened or endangered so that we can effectively manage this distinct population of turtles.

All research conducted and photos taken under permit approval.

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