Into the NWHI: Stories of the 2013 Hawaiian Monk Seal Field Camps

Get a glimpse into field life in the NWHI through the eyes of conservation scientists who will be living on the islands to conduct monk seal research and recovery efforts until September.

July 15, 2013

by Jessie Lopez- JIMAR Field Logistics Supervisor, Chief Scientist on Sette Cruise SE13-05

On July 11th I had the pleasure of going ashore to Eastern Island at Midway Atoll with Suzanne Canja to help tag weaned pups. We heard that there had been seven pups born on Eastern in the last few months so we were hopeful that we’d find at least a few to put new flipper tags on. We found a few molting seals and a mom with a nursing pup but alas, no weaned pups to be seen. On the way back to the ship we spotted a shiny silver blob on the beach at Spit Island. I steered the boat towards shore and sure enough, it was a fat weaned pup on the beach. We anchored the boat and got our tagging gear ready. After creating a plan, Suzanne and I captured the seal in a stretcher net and within 5 minutes she had nice new shiny pink tags that read “N00” and “N01.”* The pup was given the new ID of PN00. We also measured her length and girth and inserted a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag just under her skin. Unfortunately, that was the only pup we found that day. Hopefully Suzanne will be able to find the others during her time at Midway and give them new names too.

sette

The NOAA ship Oscar Sette docked at Midway under an impending rain storm.

On July 12th the ship arrived at Kure Atoll. We would be spending three days at Kure while a team of divers from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) worked off the Sette to collect and deploy oceanographic instruments. This ability to share ship time and complete multiple projects from different programs in a single trip is becoming increasingly more essential in order for individual programs to complete their objectives with decreasing budgets and number of available ship days.

While the divers were working at Kure I oversaw the offload of equipment and supplies for the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) camp on Kure. I also went ashore for a few days to conduct monk seal surveys. Although the monk seal research program was not able to deploy a monk seal camp at Kure this year, a few DLNR employees with previous experience in monk seal research have been conducting weekly monk seal surveys, tagging weaned pups, and conducting necropsies of dead animals. This partnership with DLNR has been very important for us and is the only way that we are able to gain information on the Hawaiian monk seal population at Kure even though we are not able to deploy staff of our own this season.

I conducted two full surveys of seals on Green Island and Sand Island in order to gain a snapshot count of the number of seals on the beach throughout Kure atoll. These counts are the bread and butter of monk seal population assessment and are used throughout the Hawaiian archipelago to estimate the total number of monk seals in each population. I stayed on the island the night of July 13th and was able to see some of the other work being done by DLNR staff at Kure Atoll. Their main focus is on habitat restoration and includes many individual plant and sea bird projects.  The last time I had spent time on Kure was 2008 and since that time the island has undergone an amazing transformation. The invasive weeds Verbesina and Cenchrus have been almost completely eradicated from the island and have been replaced by native species including Erograstus, Tribulus, and naupaka. For more information on the Kure habitat restoration efforts visit www.kureatollconservancy.org.

Green Island

A field on Green Island, Kure atoll full of Erograstus that was once completely covered in Verbesina

Though the monk seal field season is shorter at some sites than others this year, we will be able to collect at least some data at all field sites during the summer field season. This is only possible through collaboration with our partner agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and DLNR. Since camps have been deployed over the last 12 days, data has been slowly trickling in from the different field sites and we’re starting to get an idea of how many pups have been born this year, how many young animals are still alive, and what kinds of threats these seals have been dealing with for the past 10 months since our field scientists were last here. It’s still too early to tell what this season has in store for both the seals and the field staff, but it’s shaping up to be a good season.

*The color of the tags designates what island a seal is born on: yellow for French Frigate Shoals, brown for Laysan, green for Lisianski, blue for Pearl and Hermes Reef, pink for Midway, grey for Kure, and red for main Hawaiian Islands. The letter on the tag designates what year the pup was born, or its cohort. All pups born in 2013 will have “N” tags.

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