Creating a “Community” for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

by Hoku Johnson

How do managers effectively spread the word about the natural splendors of a large, extremely remote place?  Who is the “community” of people that will provide advice to NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers on development of a management plan for this place?  Why should anyone care about the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM)?

Wading toward the small boats after a day of manager-expert discussions.

Wading toward the small boats after a day of manager-expert discussions.

Sean Russell, Susan White, Callum Roberts and Leanne Fernandes discuss marine conservation while wading through the water at Palmyra Atoll.

Sean Russell, Susan White, Callum Roberts and Leanne Fernandes discuss marine conservation while wading through the water at Palmyra Atoll.

Last week, a small group of four experts and four marine managers set out to discuss these questions on Palmyra Atoll, a National Wildlife Refuge located within the PRIMNM, approximately 1,100 miles south of Honolulu.  Their main task: develop a community steering committee comprised of stakeholders that will be able to provide advice to managers on everything ranging from prioritizing research to figuring out creative ways to bring the wonders of these remote protected atolls and islands to the world.

Before diving into discussion, the group had the opportunity to dive into the ocean surrounding Palmyra Atoll to connect with the place and experience a kaleidoscope of corals, fishes, sharks, and turtles. The diving and snorkeling was amazing and reminded the group of why a community of advocates is important to such a remote area.

The group discusses building a community steering committee for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

The group discusses building a community steering committee for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Once everyone dried off, the group–consisting of Dr. Callum Roberts, Dr. Leanne Fernandes, Mr. Sean Russell, Ms. Hoku Johnson, Mr. Matthew Brown, Ms. Samantha Brooke, Ms. Heidi Hirsh, Ms. Susan White, and facilitator Ms. Deanna Spooner–delved into topics including: sorting through relevant stakeholder groups, discussing the Presidential Proclamations that established and expanded PRIMNM, different ways a community steering committee might be convened, and priority topics this group would discuss in the future.

Juvenile coconut crab

Juvenile coconut crab

By the end of the week, the group finalized a draft framework for a community steering committee (dubbed the “PRIMNM CSC”) that will be fleshed out further by the NOAA and Fish and Wildlife Service managers over the next few months. The group celebrated their achievement by participating in a Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium beach barbecue and an evening “crab walk” looking for numerous species of crabs that live on Palmyra Atoll.

Refuge Manager Stefan Kropidlowski talks with the group about the native Pisonia tree behind him.

Refuge Manager Stefan Kropidlowski talks with the group about the native Pisonia tree behind him.

Posted in Scientific Operations | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

“I want to be a scientist when I grow up!”

by Amy Vandehey

“When I got accepted into the NOAA Fisheries Science Camp, I was so excited because I knew I was going to learn more about marine topics I was interested in. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I had an idea that NOAA did a lot of cool research all over the world because I do watch a lot of documentaries. I was very interested in what NOAA Fisheries does for our State of Hawai‘i, as well.” ~ Marlon, science camper

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Marlon and other campers learn about casting and the importance of data in fisheries management.

Expectations were high as the students filed out of the school bus one bright summer morning to attend the 2016 NOAA Fisheries Science Camp at the NOAA Inouye Regional Center in Honolulu. They had only seen a small preview of what was in store for them at the third annual summer camp, with the overarching theme, “Using Technology to Study Ocean Life and Ecosystems.”

A week of absorbing new skills and information come together in the final mystery scenario challenge. Here a camper completes her team's proposed research plan.

A week of absorbing new skills and information come together in the final mystery scenario challenge. Here a camper completes her team’s proposed research plan.

The NOAA-sponsored summer camp targeted incoming 8th grade students in underserved communities and charter schools on Oʻahu and was completely free for participants. The five-day camp consisted of six different science modules, a field trip to visit the Waikīkī Aquarium and conduct a beach cleanup, and culminated with an activity that challenged the students to use information and skills learned at camp to solve a mystery scenario.

Almost 40 NOAA Fisheries and JIMAR staff and interns developed and taught the science modules, while four Waikīkī Aquarium docents, three science teachers, and one oceanography undergraduate student volunteered their time to participate as camp small group leaders. Together, they provided a unique hands-on experience for the campers in current fisheries research areas, such as marine debris, fish sampling techniques and stock assessments, marine food webs, plankton, Hawaiian monk seals, and fisheries-dependent data.

In addition, a recent NOAA grant allowed a middle school science teacher, who was a camp small group leader in 2015, to develop educator’s kit lessons based off of the science modules. These kit lessons will bring NOAA science to students during the school year and contain lesson plans that meet Hawai‘i Department of Education standards, instructions, materials, and supplemental information that teachers can borrow for free.

A student identifies zooplankton under a microscope using a simple dichotomous key.

A student identifies zooplankton under a microscope using a simple dichotomous key.

After completing the 2016 camp, Marlon described his experience as opening a “wide window of opportunities”:

“One of the many parts of the science camp I enjoyed was the plankton module activities. We examined planktonic stages by viewing it through microscopes. I thought that was pretty cool because I was able to see the physical changes of plankton at each stage of their life cycle. The field trip to the Waikīkī Aquarium was also very memorable because after learning about the different tanks and research at the aquarium, we later then contributed to cleaning up trash from the beach side. It always feels great to help our community in various ways.

I’ve always wanted to be a scientist when I grow up. Fossils, dinosaurs, and marine animals are my greatest interests within the past few years. I really want to be a marine biologist, but I don’t know yet what specific area I would want to study or research. My experiences at NOAA Fisheries Science Camp just opened a wide window of opportunities for me.”

Campers, NOAA staff and small group leaders gather at the back of the NOAA IRC Building on the first day of camp.

Campers, NOAA staff and small group leaders gather at the back of the NOAA IRC Building on the first day of camp.

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24 days, 900 buckets, 4 seals,…

It is the end of another Hawaiian monk seal field season.  The research cruise to pick up all of our field teams has returned, and our Chief Scientist for the cruise, Stacie Robinson, reflects on the experience.

…580 water jugs, 50 pelican cases, 30 liquid nitrogen dewars, 22 pallet tubs, 6 boats, and plenty of odds and ends.  But, hey, who’s counting?  It takes a lot of gear to make a safe and successful field camp in the most remote islands in the Pacific!  And it takes a lot of help to get it all packed and hauled back to Honolulu at the end of the field season!  Huge thanks to the NOAA ship Sette crew and officers (unsung heroes for sure) for another very successful monk seal camp pick-up cruise!

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Hoisting a seemingly endless number of buckets from camp – to small boat – to ship – to home. (NMFS Photo)

Hawaiian monk seal assessment and recovery camps have been deployed since the 1980s.  By now, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine (even an inexperienced chief scientist can mostly just keep watch as the machine works – thank goodness!).  And yet, the routine never quite becomes mundane.  Every day on the cruise, the monk seal team seems to be confronted with some new challenge.  And every year, the team finds ways to throw in a few curve balls for the ship (mission changes, emergencies activities, and more), and the vessel crews find ways to keep batting a thousand!

Sometime even routine gear loading from camps has its challenges. For example: Aug 13, stop #1 at Pearl and Hermes Camp: “Hey guys, today we just need to be in three in places at once – pick up marine debris from multiple islands across the Pearl and Hermes atoll, find a seal that needs to be tagged, load up some gear, and get done in time to deploy an acoustic device before making our transit 16 hours to the next site.”  Done!

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One small step in island clean-up. One giant bag to pull off the beach! (NMFS Photo)

Some logistics never seem to become routine.  Landing on steep rocky islands like Nihoa and Mokumanamana is always a challenge – just one swell or gust of wind away from missing out on monitoring entire monk seal subpopulations.  This year was a treat – weather cooperated and coxswains expertly navigated – we were able to survey both hard-to-track islands.  Numerous seals and healthy pups greeted our survey teams.

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One of five mother-pup pairs observed during the survey of Mokumanamana. (NMFS Photo)

Since the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program started translocating monk seals between Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sites, their baaah-ing and pooing were welcomed (or at least tolerated) on deck by the crew and officers.  Then transit with seals got a little longer when The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital brought the possibility of rehabilitating animals if only our ships could bring them to Kona.  How to top such requests?  This year we stretched our capacity to take on our oldest rehab candidate yet (a 5 year female in emaciated condition).  The Sette crew was helpful in taking on a larger animal, and the three other patients picked up this cruise.  And they even accommodated an after-hours small boat launch to save the patients from one more night on the ship when we arrived in Kona as the sun set.

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A successful cruise wraps up with loading seals (in kennels) into the small boat for transit to Honokohau harbor, and then on TMMC’s Ke Kai Ola rehabilitation facility. (NMFS Photo)

Back to solid ground and the creature comforts of home, scientists and sailors celebrated briefly and then got to work cleaning up camp gear or prepping for the next cruise.  For a novice chief scientist, it’s a relief that none of the wrenches upset the well-oiled machine.  Field staff all home in one piece, complete dataset to better track the species, and four young seals with a second chance at survival – the end of another field season is a little bit like the start of a new year for Hawaiian monk seal research.

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

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

A twenty minute boat ride to safety

French Frigate Shoals has earned a reputation as one of the more challenging sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – both for monk seals and monk seal camp biologists.

Why?  Life can be hard at French Frigate Shoals!  Once the home to the largest subpopulation of Hawaiian monk seals, French Frigate Shoals is now the site most consistently showing the highest mortality rates for seals, especially for young seals less than 2 years old.  The greatest threat to young seals is one that is entirely unique to French Frigate Shoals.   A small number of the Shoal’s Galapagos sharks have developed the peculiar behavior of focusing predation on monk seal pups, often swimming right up to take pups off the sand.

Shark Bite

A pup with a substantial shark bite! Such an injury greatly reduces this pup’s chance of surviving the season. This pup is lucky to have survived the initial attack, as many French Frigate Shoals pups do not. (NMFS Photo)

At least 9 of the 35 pups born at French Frigate Shoals this season were lost to Galapagos shark predation. This is not a new problem.  And while it is a relatively small number of sharks involved, the impact on the monk seal population is significant.  In recent years, more than 250 of the roughly 1000 pups born at French Frigate Shoals have been a victim of Galapagos shark predation.  The total number of pups known to be taken by Galapagos sharks in the rest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during the same period is 0.

Over the years, Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) field researchers have tried an assortment of mitigation strategies.  They focus efforts at the most dangerous islets where Galapagos sharks are observed attacking nursing and weaned pups right at the shoreline. Efforts have included deterrents such as underwater speakers, large magnets, and electric “shark shields” designed for scuba divers. But none have significantly reduced the mortality rate.  The team even dedicates part of their field season to fishing for the specific individual sharks that prey on monk seals at the high-risk islets. This selective fishing of a few sharks will likely have greater impact reducing seal mortality than other methods.  However, the highly selective nature of the fishing means often only one shark may be caught in a year (and often none).  So we have a way to go before we start seeing the benefit of the effort.

Trig Camp 2016

The small satellite camp biologists use to monitor nursing pups and fish for sharks at Trig Island, French Frigate Shoals. (NMFS Photo)

In the meantime, vigilant and protective monk seal moms are the best defense for nursing pups.  Unfortunately, when mom is out of milk and abruptly weans her pup, the young and naïve seal is left to fend for itself. This is when most shark attacks happen.  So field biologists at French Frigate Shoals must remain extra vigilant as well.  They carefully track nursing pups, and as soon as a pup weans, they scoop the “weaners” up in a stretcher net and give them a 20 minute boat ride (during which pups usually fall asleep) to Tern Island, which is relatively safe with 0 shark attacks most years.

 This video shows a protective female monk seal fending off two Galapagos sharks attempting to prey on her pup at Trig Island, French Frigate Shoals. 

WeanerCollage

Pup are especially susceptible to shark predation after they wean from their mothers and start exploring the near-shore environment. (NMFS Photos)

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The French Frigate Shoals team scoops up a weaned monk seal pup to translocate it to a beach safe from shark predation. (NMFS Photo)

This year HMSRP researchers translocated 11 weaned pups to the safety of Tern Island. Unfortunately, upon ending our field season and leaving French Frigate Shoals on August 20th, there were still 6 pups nursing, and more expected to be born at these high-risk islets. For the biologists, it is always difficult to leave knowing there are more seals that would benefit from our help… but we can only do what we can do.

boat

The trusty French Frigate Shoals boat moored off shore, ready for another day of carrying young seals to safety. (NMFS Photo)

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

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

How much does a longline fishing trip cost?

Since 2004, the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program – in collaboration with the NOAA Observer Program managed by the Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO) – has maintained an ongoing trip-level economic data collection program for Hawaii longline fisheries. The establishment of this routine economic data collection program provides timely information to support management of these fisheries. Economic data collected are used for (but not limited to): 1) Assessing the economic viability and stability of the fisheries; 2) Measuring the economic importance to local economies and the value of fisheries; and 3) Analyzing the economic impacts of various policy options.

Trip costs for Hawaii longline tuna fishing trips, 2004-2015

An average tuna trip cost about $25,500 in 2015, excluding labor costs. Over the period 2004-2015, the average trip cost in the Hawaii tuna longline fishery nearly doubled (in nominal value), from $13,800 per trip to $25,500 per trip, due primarily to increases in fuel prices. In 2004, fuel costs made up about 46% of total trip costs, whereas it comprised 54% in 2015. Average tuna trip costs have increased gradually over time, peaking in 2012. In 2012, the average yearly fuel price as reported by fishermen reached a high of $3.90 per gallon (average consumer prices as reported by AAA was $4.78/gallon at the time), which comprised nearly 58% of the non-labor trip costs. The recent drop in fuel prices during 2015 resulted in decreased overall fishing costs in 2015 relative to prior years (16% lower than the 2012 peak).

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Trip costs for Hawaii longline swordfish fishing trips, 2005-2015

Swordfish fishing trips are usually more expensive than tuna fishing trips, even when trips are carried out by the same vessel, mostly due to longer trip length and subsequently a higher proportion of fuel cost in its trip expenditures. On average, the cost of a swordfish trip is approximately double that of a tuna fishing trip. In 2015, the average swordfish trips cost $42,200. In 2012 when the average yearly fuel price was at its peak, an average swordfish trip cost over $57,600, while a tuna trip cost about $30,700 during the same year. Similar to tuna trips, with the substantial drop of fuel price in 2015, the average trip costs for swordfish fishing decreased relative to recent years (27% less than the peak costs in 2012).

fig2

More data products based the data collection program led Dr. Minling Pan, can be found on the PIFSC website, click for:

Hawaii longline

American Samoa longline

For more information about this research or to comment on survey results, feel free to contact us: pifsc.socioeconomics@noaa.gov

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts.

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

Does this belong to you? A short photo essay of monk seals and trash at Laysan Island

As the Oscar Elton Sette continues down the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain, picking up each of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program A.R.C. teams, we continue to get impressions from each camp.  Campers at Laysan were struck by the commonality of marine debris and the interactions of monk seals with it.  You read earlier about our field teams’ efforts to clean up marine debris and the several thousand pounds collected in just a few beach clean ups.  Here are some (sadly) everyday images from Laysan that demonstrate what happens to that debris in monk seal habitat.

LAYblog-1

Seal WH34 rests against a Menehune water bottle. Much of the marine debris that washes ashore on Laysan comes from Asia, but we still see a lot of recognizable local products from the Main Hawaiian Islands. Carelessly lost trash regularly makes the 800 mile journey from the main islands to wash ashore on Laysan Island. (NMFS Photo)

LAYblog-2

Seal WH10 (Niho’ole) plays with marine debris. Young Monk Seals are naturally curious and inquisitive and can often be seen playing with anything ranging from sea cucumbers, to sticks, to coral rubble and rocks, to marine debris. This curiosity and the constant barrage of ghost nets coming out the Pacific gyre is the reason that monk seals have one of the highest rates of entanglement amongst marine mammals. (NMFS Photo)

LAYblog-3

Seal GI08 calls to her pup (WH10) on the other side of a massive ghost net that washed ashore. The net found its way to on one of Laysan Island’s primary pupping beaches that had 7 mom and pup pairs at the time. In order to prevent disturbances to the mom and pup pairs, the Laysan team woke up early the next morning and returned to the beach while the seals were asleep in the vegetation. They stealthily removed as much of the net as they could before the seals moved back toward the water. (NMFS Photo)

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

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