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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sulu-Sulawesi: A Seascape in the Heart of the Coral Triangle

By Supin Wongbusarakum
Bunaken National Marine Park is located near the center of the Coral Triangle region, north of Sulawesi island, Indonesia.

Bunaken National Marine Park is located near the center of the Coral Triangle region, north of Sulawesi island, Indonesia.

Map of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape.  Image: Marine Conservation Institute (2014), MPAtlas [On-line]. Seattle, WA. Available at: [Accessed (03/08/2015)].

Map of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape.
Image: Marine Conservation Institute (2014), MPAtlas [On-line]. Seattle, WA. Available at: [Accessed (03/08/2015)].

It is an interesting challenge to contemplate future plans for a vast blue seascape, bright with corals and teeming with fish, under florescent lights in a carpeted hotel meeting room in Manado, Indonesia. The Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape is a complex marine region in the heart of the Coral Triangle—one of the most biologically diverse and most threatened marine environments in the world. In high demand for fisheries and coastal resources, this region is complicated by the intersection of political and cultural boundaries between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. A clear plan for sustainable fisheries management is needed more than ever.

In early June, a multi-national team, brought together by the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF), convened to formulate an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM) plan for the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape that balances ecological health and human well-being through good governance.

Participants in the 2015 CTI-CFF Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape EAFM Implementation Planning Meeting.

Participants in the 2015 CTI-CFF Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape EAFM Implementation Planning Meeting.

Rusty Brainard and Supin Wongbusarakum from the NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), Angelina Stella and Paige Casey from the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, and Bob Pomeroy from the University of Connecticut Sea Grant Program, served as facilitators and resource experts at the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape EAFM Implementation Planning Meeting from June 2-5, 2015.

Rusty Brainard provides an overview of an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM).

Rusty Brainard provides an overview of an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management (EAFM).

Working with senior fisheries officers, monitoring, control, and surveillance leads from the Philippines and Indonesia, EAFM experts, representatives from a regional project funded by the Asian Development Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and other Coral Triangle partners, the team agreed on a vision for the future of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape: By 2035, the Sulu-Sulawesi is a marine eco-region that is ecologically healthy and delivers ecosystem services that provide equitable socio-economic and cultural benefits through generations, by collaborative and sustainable fisheries management across all political and cultural boundaries.

To tackle the key issues on unsustainable exploitation of fisheries, largely due to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and habitat loss, the participants identified specific goals for each of the three components of an EAFM: Human Well-being (Socioeconomic), Ecological Well-being, and Good Governance.

Supin Wongbusarakum leads a discussion on linking ecological, socioeconomic, and governance goals.

Supin Wongbusarakum facilitates discussions on objectives, indicators, and management activities to meet the Human Well-being (Socioeconomic) Goal.

Human Well-being (Socioeconomic) Goal:
– Resilient and self-reliant coastal communities through sustainable livelihoods and equitable access to resources and basic social services.

Ecological Well-being Goals:
– Sustainable fisheries and other living marine resources, starting with small pelagic fisheries and expanding to other fisheries at a later time.
– Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape marine waters and habitats are healthy for fishery resources especially in the face of global climate change.

Good Governance Goal:
– Improved ecosystem approach to managing fishery resources through effective governance mechanisms and operational implementation (including capacity building) and enforcement of regulations, national and transboundary, including prosecution.

By following the EAFM planning process, the group established clear objectives, indicators, and management actions as well as identified opportunities, constraints, and key stakeholders for each of the above goals. In closing, the international participants agreed to bring the draft EAFM plan to their country’s stakeholders for internal review.

The workshop concluded with a positive outlook and willingness from all the parties to continue actively working together. The group will reconvene in the fall to complete the draft EAFM plan and begin implementation—helping to ensure sustainable fisheries in a complex and ecologically important marine region.

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

Bubbles or not, here we come!

By Andrew Gray
Andrew Gray pre-breathes to prepare his rebreather for five minutes prior to entering the water for a Stationary Point Count fish survey dive.

Andrew Gray pre-breathes to prepare his rebreather for five minutes prior to entering the water for a Stationary Point Count (SPC) fish survey dive.

Something was different on the recent PIFSC Main Hawaiian Islands Reef Fish Survey cruise led by the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED). In addition to the usual scuba surveys conducted by scientists, the small boats also deployed scientific divers that resembled a species of bionic frogmen. Instead of scuba, these divers used closed circuit rebreathers (CCR), and while it may look like they were a bit overdressed for the occasion, there was a good reason for it.

When conventional open circuit scuba divers take a breath of air from the tanks on their backs, they exhale it into the surrounding water and create a burst of bubbles containing CO2, residual oxygen not metabolized by the body, and nitrogen, an inert gas. Closed circuit rebreathers (or just rebreathers) are a specialized type of dive equipment that removes the CO2 and re-uses the exhaled oxygen. The diver breathes from a “loop” of gas where CO2 is removed from the exhaled gas by a chemical filter called a “scrubber.” Three oxygen sensors analyze the gas and a computer-controlled solenoid adds additional oxygen to replenish oxygen metabolized by the diver or add more oxygen when specified by the diver. Rebreathers include two small tanks of gas, one of pure oxygen and a second of a gas to dilute the oxygen called the diluent, usually air for depths less than 130 feet.

Closed circuit rebreather (CCR) diver Ray Boland poses with open circuit diver Kristin Golman despite her loud and annoying exhales.

Closed circuit rebreather (CCR) diver Ray Boland poses with open circuit diver Kristin Golman despite her loud and annoying exhales.

This equipment has a number of benefits over conventional scuba. The efficient use (and re-use) of gas allows divers to stay underwater much longer without having to bring an excessive number of tanks. Since the rebreather is mixing an ideal nitrox gas mix for whatever depth the diver is at, rebreather divers can have much longer no-decompression dive times when compared with conventional scuba divers at the same depth. Also, because no air is released into surrounding water, there are no bubbles or noisy exhalations—and that is exactly why we are using them.

It’s understood that visual fish surveys may be prone to certain biases. One of which is that fish behavior may be altered by the presence of a diver in the water. Some fish species may be attracted to the diver, others afraid. In areas where spearfishing is common, targeted fishes likely react to divers very differently than in areas where fishing does not occur. The CRED fish team specializes in conducting Stationary Point Count (SPC) visual fish surveys, which have always been conducted on open circuit scuba. But what effect do the noisy, conspicuous bubbles produced by scientific divers using scuba have on our fish counts and biomass estimates? By using closed circuit rebreathers we can replace the blaring bubble machines with silent divers.

Diving on closed circuit rebreather, Kosta Stamoulis encounters a manta ray (Manta birostris) while conducting a Stationary Point Count visual fish surveys

Diving on closed circuit rebreather, Kosta Stamoulis encounters a manta ray (Manta birostris) during a SPC visual fish survey.

So that’s where the “bionic frogmen” come in. On the recently completed research cruise, CRED and partners conducted stationary point count visual fish surveys throughout the main Hawaiian Islands using both open circuit scuba and closed circuit rebreathers to compare results. Would we record more fish when using the less obtrusive rebreathers? Would we see more of the fish species targeted by fisheries when using rebreathers and the same amount of other smaller non-fished species like butterflyfish and damselfish? Surely we’d see the same number of hawkfish, those small wary fish perched on top of coral heads. Right? Well, we are only about halfway through our comparison study so it’s too early to say just yet, but preliminary results suggest that we are seeing some differences when using rebreathers and not always what we expected. We hope to work up the results in a scientific paper later this year.

Ray Boland meticulously preps his Inspiration rebreather prior to conducting an SPC survey.

Ray Boland meticulously preps his Inspiration rebreather prior to conducting an SPC survey.

If open circuit diving is so obtrusive, why don’t all scientific divers switch to using rebreathers? Because there are some disadvantages to diving with rebreathers which can make life difficult when conducting hundreds or thousands of surveys each year. For one, rebreathers are heavy and bulky, even for me, a 190-pound 6’2” guy. After coercing your body into the 65-pound rebreather and clipping on another 15-pound bailout tank, regular scuba gear feels like floating on a fistful of helium balloons. You also have to deal with much longer setup and breakdown times, more pre-dive preparation and buddy checks, and significantly more expensive gear and consumables. Rather than have everyone switch to rebreather, we are more interested in understanding any differences in fish biomass between open circuit scuba surveys and rebreather surveys. For now, rebreathers are another interesting tool we can use to help monitor and assess reef fish populations around the Hawaiian Islands and U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean.

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

Where are all the Ranina ranina?

Where are all the Ranina ranina?

By guest blogger Lauren Van Heukelem

One main objective of the SE1503 cruise aboard NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette was to survey the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) for Ranina ranina (Kona crab or spanner crab) that have been rumored to exist in the archipelago. This species is widely distributed across the Pacific and Indian Oceans in sandy-bottom habitats. It is an edible crab that generally supports sustainable, small-scale fisheries where it is found in abundance. Considering the depth and remoteness of some of the soft-bottom areas in the Marianas Archipelago, there is lack of information on this species yet strong local science partner interest in better understanding the potential distribution and abundance of this species in the area. Such a project was put forth at the “Marianas Trench Marine National Monument and Mariana Archipelago Ecosystem Science Implementation Plan Workshop” that was held in Saipan in May of 2013, and was subsequently chosen by the PIFSC to complete using a research team from the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette. The project was originally slated for 2014 but was postponed to 2015 due to scheduling delays. This served as one of the several primary objectives of project SE1503 over 11-27 June 2015.

All SE1503 Kona crab surveying efforts were undertaken by the crew of PIFSC small boat called SteelToe (SE6) and later after mechanical issues the Sette small boat called SE4. Both small boats were deployed off the Oscar Elton Sette nearly every day of the project with the exception of the days that we traveled between islands (Photo 1). Operations onboard SE6 began every morning at 7:30am with a small boat meeting and ended at 16:30 each evening, just in time for dinner. The crew consisted of our SE6 coxswain and SE1503 Small Boat Logistics Lead Jamie Barlow and deck crewmember Tony Flores. The remaining crew rotated between the scientists of SE1503 taking turns being data recorders and deck helpers throughout the cruise. The primary helpers were Lauren Van Heukelem, Erin Kawamoto, and Eric Cruz, but nearly all the SE1503 scientific staff and some Sette staff did a stint on SE6 or SE4 during the mission.

The surveys consisted of throwing eight sardine-baited ring nets attached to a 300ft ground line in sandy areas, considered to be optimal habitat for Ranina ranina, based on maps created for this cruise (Photo 2, 3, and 4). An example map is shown down below for Sarigan, where our spatially-balanced random point trapping survey locations are shown. These stations are located on prospective soft-bottom habitats and represented the starting points for our survey as we worked our way through the archipelago. We came outfitted with a large set of poster-sized charts for the science party to examine and mull over for the following day of operations, and we also shared a copy with the ship’s bridge. Much thanks to the PIFSC Mapping, GIS, and Graphics staff for generating these products for our project. These survey locations were located at a range of depths up to ~125m. The gear was left for a soak time between 30-60 minutes and then retrieved. Species were recorded upon coming up in each of the eight ring nets. Predation by sharks and other species was also recorded based on condition of bait and nets (Photo 5). We were also able to deploy a camera attached to one of our baited ring nets and view predation events occurring during the net soak time. This particular trap had five sharks fighting over the bait (photo 6). We also took some bottom grab samples to help validate the habitat mapping.

Unfortunately we were unable to confirm that Ranina ranina was present in the CNMI. Seven islands were surveyed (Uracus, Maug, Agrihan, Pagan, Alamagan, Guguan, and Sarigan) using a total of 101 ground lines with 808 nets deployed in various depths and no Ranina ranina were recorded. Although we were unable to locate Ranina ranina during our surveys, this does serve as a useful set of data points towards a better delineation of the distribution and abundance of this species across its range. During the course of the survey we were also able to assist in collecting samples for our fellow scientist Allison Miller when invertebrates came up in our ring nets. This allowed her to sample not only the nearshore ecosystems but also in deeper areas for her genetics study.


Photo 1: SE 6 arriving back at the Oscar Sette after a day of surveying.


Photo 2: Sardine baited ring nets used for Ranina ranina capture.


Photo 3: Tony Flores and Lauren Van Heukelem preparing to deploy a set of eight ring nets attached to a 300ft ground line.


Photo 4: Jamie Barlow getting us in position while the crew prepares the nets.


Photo 5: Jamie Barlow bring up a ring net that had had the bait removed by a predator.


Photo 6: Video screenshot of shark removing bait from a ring net.


Map 1: Example map of Sarigan and our spatially-balanced random point trapping survey design targeting prospective soft-bottom habitats in the depth range 0-125m.

Posted in Ecosystems and Oceanography Division (EOD), Scientific Operations

SE1503 – Sharks on the Ship and Videos from the Deep

By Guest Bloggers Cassie Pardee and Diona Drake

Here we present another update from project SE1503 aboard NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette performing fisheries oceanographic research in the Mariana Islands (11-27 June 2015).

We have been trapping from the Sette with lobster pots, minnow traps, and a BIG trap around most of the archipelago, to supplement the trapping survey being done by the small boat team. Each morning we are never sure what we are going to pull out of the water. We are targeting relatively deep 50-125m soft-bottom areas using the best available mapping information, ship sounders, as well as a small Ponar bottom grab to assist in placing our gear in those areas with unconsolidated substrate ( Surprisingly, we are bringing up a more than a few sharks. We are surprised because the small openings in our traps would have seemed to be an effective deterrent to shark bycatch. The most common species being captured include white tip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus), gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrynchos), and nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum). The gray reef and nurse sharks have all been brought up in the giant fish trap (Figure 1). Some of the sharks are so wide, we can hardly believe that they could fit through the trap opening. The white tip reef sharks really love the little, black lobster pots which have even smaller openings and less space. We have even brought up two sharks in one pot a few times (Figure 2), and once three white tips were jammed into a single lobster pot. All of the sharks are released alive once they have been quickly measured, photographed, and two non-invasive fin clips are taken from their dorsal fins for genetic analysis (Figure 3).

During our daytime BIG trap deployment we have been attaching GoPro and FlyWire cameras to the outside and the inside of the trap to see bottom type and what is really going on after we lose sight of the trap. The video footage has been very revealing. Sometimes we will bring up an empty trap and then watch video footage to see fish swim in and then back out of the trap, or watch as sharks and sting rays try repeatedly to enter the trap but are too big to fit through the opening. We have captured video images of garden eels (, tiger sharks (, huge sting rays (, giant hermit crabs (, schools of juvenile fishes (, and various other fish species (some cunning enough to swim in and out of the trap). The video footage exposes a whole new aspect to how the trapping process works and gives us the opportunity to see other species in the area that were too smart (or too big or too small) to get caught in our traps. We also tried collecting some video during the night ( While our trapping work is part of a broader ecosystem survey, the findings will feed into a better understanding of how fishing gear operates. The mechanics of the capture process are often overlooked, yet are a key component of fishing gear efficiency and fishery stock assessments that rely on data from fishing gear.


Figure 1. Nurse shark and gray reef shark brought up in the BIG trap.


Figure 2. Two white tip reef sharks being released from a lobster pot.


Figure 3. A white tip reef shark being released after measurement and fin-clips.

Posted in Ecosystems and Oceanography Division (EOD), Scientific Operations