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. 


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


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.


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.

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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).


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).


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.

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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.


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)


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)


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.

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Fantastic Fieldcamp Foodstuffs

Program Note: As we travel through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands picking up our field camps we have asked each island crew to share a tale or two of their life and adventures during this summer field season.  This entry is from our Pearl and Hermes field team: Sadie, April, and Laney.

Our Pearl and Hermes Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program crew is heading back down the island chain on the Oscar Elton Sette, reveling in the wonders of salad and ice cream and a break from food that tastes vaguely like the plastic buckets it was stored in.  That said, we landed in a camp with a bunch of great cooks, and we ate very well this season.  Dinners were our time to fuel up, wind down, and chat about topics that we’d probably steer clear of at a dinner party (seal poop, for one).


Pearl and Hermes biologists Sadie and April relaxing over a nice camp dinner – probably talking about seal poop!

While we don’t worry too much about rationing, many of our more precious food items can be found in the solar-power charged chest freezer, and our supply of dried pastas and baking goods give many meals that ‘homemade’ feel. Dried beans are also a treat, but require a bit of planning ahead what with soaking times and all.  Anything crisp or crunchy is an utter joy despite it being rather alarming to hear a ‘crunch’ come from the mouth of a fellow camper; not to worry, just the sound of a walnut, not a tooth breaking on coral left in the dishes from our ocean washing.


The well-stocked kitchen tent at Pearl and Hermes monk seal camp.

Cooking in the field can be a bit of an adjustment- limited space, no running water, two burners, a metal box that charades as an oven, sand everywhere, flies, and not a fresh vegetable in sight.  On the upside, pretty much everything tastes better after a long day of working outdoors, and field campers make for very forgiving and appreciative dinner guests.  We compiled winning recipes and camp hacks throughout the season from fellow seal scientists up and down the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands chain.  Need a way to use your plethora of canned chili?  Plagued by sleepless nights thanks to a dozen brown noddies tap dancing on your tent roof?  Wondering how to bake a cake without burning it to a crisp in the Coleman oven?  Some camper has probably stumbled across a solution, and we typed it up into a comical stockpile of wisdom to share and pass on to future campers.  The Fantastic Fieldcamp Foodstuffs installments speak to the general hilarity that often pervades cooking operations in a tent on a tiny island.

We’ve tacked on a sample installment from our cookbook, but be forewarned:  things that taste fabulous in the field often fall a bit flat when you return to places with things like fresh produce and kitchen knives that cut, so pursue the recipes with appropriately mitigated expectations.

Fantastic Fieldcamp Foodstuffs Installment No.04


Fieldcamp cookbook cover designed by Ilana Nimz of Lisianski camp.

Hello, lovely campers!  This gem of an installment comes from Ilana Nimz.  Aquafaba (the water from a can of chickpeas, or from homemade chickpeas) is some strange miracle liquid that can be made into about a million things, like vegan meringue.  Those crazy vegans.  Here, it aids with the leavening of a super-quick flatbread.

This meal has been field-tested and approved twice-over!  I made it the other night, doubling the flatbread recipe and making a couscous salad instead of the tomato salad because tomatoes are precious on PHR.  Enjoy!


(makes 4 flatbreads)

  • 1c flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/3 tsp salt
  • 1/3 tsp garlic powder or 1 tsp jarred garlic
  • 1 tbsp herbs
  • 3 tbsp chickpea water from can (the chickpeas will be used in the falafel, so nothing goes to waste!)
  • 2 tsp oil
  • 2.5 tbsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp lemon

Knead ingredients together, then spray oil and roll out/knead for a little longer. Let mix sit covered for a few mins.  Prepare the falafel, salad or dressing in the meantime. When ready, break dough into 4 segments and roll out into ovals. I used a glass ball rolling pin for this to make it extra field-camp authentic.  Put the flattened dough into a lightly oiled skillet and cover for 2 mins, then flip and cover for another 2 mins. Bubbles may form and that’s A-ok.

Happy cookin!

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

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Does Holding a Commercial Fishing License Make a Fisherman Fish Commercially?

PIFSC Socioeconomics Program economists, Dr. Hing Ling Chan and Dr. Minling Pan, in collaboration with the State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, recently completed a study to examine the economic and social characteristics of the Hawaii small boat fishery. In 2014, they conducted a survey of 1,796 fishermen that held a State of Hawaii commercial marine license (CML) and reported fish sales in the past 12 months. Nearly half of the fishermen (47%) responded to the survey and this study presents a wide range of information to further our understanding of the fishery – especially how fishermen’s motivations are associated with levels of fishing activity, catch distribution, and fishing costs.


Figure 1. Survey response distribution: How do you define yourself as a fisherman?

Results from this survey build upon past efforts to describe the diversity of fisher motivations and how they relate to behavior in the Hawaii small boat fishery.  Fishermen were asked to self-classify themselves and motivations varied widely as shown in Figure 1. This study finds that fisher motivations have tight linkages with their fishing behaviors, including the number of fishing trips taken in a year, total landings, catch rate (catch per trip), and what fishermen do with their catch (consume at home, give away, sell, etc.)

Compared to self-classified “non-commercial” fishermen, fishers identifying themselves as “full-time” or “part-time” commercial fishermen had more intensive fishing activities in terms of number of fishing trips and annual fish landings.  However, they did not sell 100% of their catches.  A substantial portion of their landings, 21% and 27%, respectively, were retained for home consumption and customary exchange.  These findings support past research findings that emphasized the vital social role small boat commercial fishermen play in local communities.  On the other hand, self-classified “non-commercial” fishermen also sold a substantial portion of their catches.  For example, fishers that identified with “recreational expense” and “purely recreational” classifications sold 52% and 28% of their total landings, respectively.  The figure below illustrates the catch distribution by different types of fisher classification.


Figure 2. Distribution of catch, by fisher self-classification

Another primary goal of this study was to update our understanding on the costs of fishing and to detail current levels of investment in the fishery.  During 2013-2014, small boat fishing trip costs averaged approximately $269, which is 36% higher than an inflation-adjusted $198 in a previous cost-earnings study of the Hawaii small boat pelagic fishery, fielded in 2007-2008.  The study also found trip costs varied by gear type. Survey responses indicated that trolling trips cost the most at $292 while boat-based spearfishing trips cost the least at $159.  Regardless of the gear type, fuel costs (boat and truck) account for more than half of total trip costs. While trip costs were similar across most fisher classifications, full-time commercial fishermen reported 46% higher trolling trip costs and 83% higher bottomfish trip costs when compared with other fishermen.


Figure 3. Average boat-based trip costs, by gear: 2014

In addition to trip costs, small boat fishermen incur significant fixed costs to fish throughout the year including: boat and trailer repair and maintenance, gear replacement and repair, boat insurance, mooring, loan payments, financial services, fees, and other expenses.  The survey found that annual fixed costs averaged $5,557 with the median of $3,364.

chan4A brochure of key preliminary findings has been published and distributed to all the small boat fishermen who received the survey.

Click here to download a copy of the brochure.

More detailed information, including a comprehensive social and economic profile of the fleet and cost-earnings analysis, will be documented in forthcoming NOAA technical reports. Stay tuned!

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.

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Welcome back Kure Camp!

The Hawaiian Monk Seal A.R.C cruise has reached the farthest northern reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago, and begun our journey home, picking up personnel and gear at five camps along the way.  Today we pulled our first field camp at Kure Atoll.

This year Kure was home to just one Hawaiian monk seal field biologist, Maureen Duffy, but don’t worry, she had plenty of company with staff and volunteers of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Kure Atoll Field Station.


Maureen Duffy sneaks close to read flipper tags to identify a sleeping monk seal. (NMFS Photo)

Surveying seals solo is no problem – one stealthy biologist can sneak up to identify all the seals on a small island in a day.  But hands-on activities like giving a seal flipper tags are a different story.  The DLNR crew were excited to help with seal work and even developed a rotation to be sure everyone got some experience.  When a pup weaned, Maureen would radio the DLNR crew, and two of them come to help restrain the seal so that Maureen could attach its flipper tags for identification.

Partnership between the one-person monk seal camp and DLNR field station camp had other benefits too – like group efforts to remove large marine debris from beaches, shark watch for safe bathing, or even baklava and celebrations after hard work.


Sunrise over the Kure Atoll Field Station camp. (NMFS Photo)

The whole Kure Island population came together during the last weeks of camp to look out for one prematurely weaned seal pup.  She had been noted as underweight and lethargic when she weaned, so all in camp were hoping she would be a good candidate for rehabilitative care.  But tensions rose and spirits drooped as she went unseen for two weeks before the end of the monk seal camp season and the arrival of NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette.  The Sette would be this young seals only chance of making it to the Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital and receive a new lease on life.  Then, 2 days before the ship arrived to pack up camp, she was found!  The entire team was relieved and pitched in to carry the young seal to a pen to await transport, and take turns standing watch until she was picked up.

pup carry

NOAA monk seal biologist and DLNR field station staff work together to carry a young monk seal in need of rehab. (NMFS Photo)

Since she was captured on the day of the Perseids meteor shower, they voted to name the seal Leleaka, Hawaiian for Milky Way.

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

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