A Whale of a Week in Saipan: Dispatches from the Field

By Marie Hill and Amanda Bradford

It’s #WhaleWeek and a team of PIFSC scientists is on a mission to find endangered western North Pacific humpback whales off the coast of Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Marie Hill, Amanda Bradford, Allan Ligon, and Adam Ü are using the vessel Sea Hunter captained by Benigno “Uncle Ben” Sablan for two weeks of humpback whale surveys. Here are their dispatches from the field so far…stay tuned for more!

February 11, 2017

After our late arrival on the 9th and a day of setting up on the 10th, we were excited for our first survey. Today turned out to be an amazing day!  Definitely a record breaker for a winter survey and ranked among good summer days. First, the conditions were excellent. We had a little bit of swell, but nothing that hampered our operations or visibility. We started out the morning with three humpback whales about ten minutes after leaving the boat channel. They were very close to the fringing reef.


First humpback whales encountered during two weeks of surveys off Saipan. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marie Hill

We made it up to Marpi Reef (about 10 nautical miles offshore) and spent the rest of the day there because that was the place to be! First, we were greeted by a group of spinner dolphins. Shortly after leaving the spinners, we saw blows from multiple humpbacks and headed over to work with them, but on the way we got distracted by short-finned pilot whales.


Spyhopping short-finned pilot whale encountered over Marpi Reef. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marie Hill

There were multiple subgroups, and we worked with a couple of them.  We deployed a satellite tag and collected a biopsy sample from the tagged individual.

During the pilot whale encounter, bottlenose dolphins showed up and then made occasional appearances throughout the rest of the day.

While on Marpi Reef, we encountered eight humpbacks (all adults), from which we collected four biopsy samples.




Bottlenose dolphins checked in with us regularly out at Marpi Reef. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marie Hill


One of eight humpback whales seen out at Marpi Reef off the coast of Saipan.                          Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marie Hill

We actually had to force ourselves to leave Marpi Reef so that we could make it back before dark. On our way back, we encountered another group of bottlenose dolphins and another group of spinners off the west side of Saipan. What a full and great day!

February 12, 2017

This morning started out nicely. The swell came up early (we were not expecting it until tonight or Monday), but the wind was really light. We encountered two humpbacks close to our first sighting yesterday. However, they were two (of the eight) individuals that we had seen yesterday at Marpi Reef; one of which we had biopsy sampled. We were able to collect more photos, but we didn’t get close enough to biopsy sample the other individual. The conditions came up much sooner than we expected, and we decided not to return to Marpi. A trifecta of swell, wind, and rain encouraged us to head in.

February 13-14, 2017

A small craft advisory, resulting from combined seas of 10-12 feet and 15-25 kt winds, has kept us off the water for the past couple of days.  Low visibility, resulting from rain, has prevented us from conducting shore surveys. We are spending our time working up the photos that we took during our first two days on the water.

We are also keeping up with the movements of the short-finned pilot whale tagged out at Marpi Reef. During our 2010-2016 surveys in the Marianas, we had only one other sighting of short-finned pilot whales off Saipan. Our previous satellite tag data from short-finned pilot whales tagged off Guam and Rota showed that some individuals travel up here, but we have never tagged a short-finned pilot whale this far north. It will be interesting to see where our tagged whale goes. After being tagged, the whale moved east and then north of Marpi Reef. During this #WhaleWeek, the tagged whale traveled to the northwest and was 32 km west of Farallón de Medinilla before changing direction to the southwest. We are hoping that they will come back down to Saipan so that we can collect more photos and biopsy samples.


Satellite tag track of a short-finned pilot whale tagged at Marpi Reef. The location where the whale was tagged is marked by a red dot.



The short-finned pilot whale tagged at at Marpi Reef before it began traveling north.     Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

All work was conducted under NMFS permit 15240 and CNMI DFW license no. 03564-17 issued to PIFSC. Funding was provided by U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet and PIFSC.


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

A Big Picture for the Big Island

by Megan Joyce and Amanda Dillon

Red slate pencil urchin (Heterocentrotus mamillatus)

The ocean off the west coast of Hawai‘i Island is home to an especially vibrant marine ecosystem. This coastal region is teeming with bright fish, sea urchins and shellfish, green sea turtles, spinner dolphins, whales, manta rays, and coral reefs. West Hawai‘i has the largest expanse of intact and actively growing coral reef in all of the main Hawaiian Islands[1]. This wide array of flora and fauna makes West Hawai‘i incredibly important for marine biodiversity but also particularly vulnerable to the pressures of an increasing human population, coastal development, fishing, pollution, and climate change.

It is a daunting task to balance the impacts of human activities on land and in the sea with the effects of a changing climate and ocean on the marine ecosystem. For resource managers to effectively regulate and protect these dynamic ecosystems, they need greater insight on the myriad pressures that impact ecosystem health. Ecosystem-based management links the pressures of society to the ecological system, focusing on the whole instead of the parts. While each piece is significant in its own right, putting them together provides a view of the broader and interwoven ecosystem—the big picture.

Kahalu‘u by Christine Shepard

The west coast of Hawai‘i Island, Kahalu‘u (Photo courtesy of Christine Shepard, Coral Cove Imagery LLC ©)

With this ambitious goal in mind, Dr. Jamison Gove and a team of collaborators set out to evaluate the status of the marine ecosystem off the west coast of Hawai‘i Island. Community members, scientists, and resource managers came together to determine the primary pressures on the ecosystem and the indicators of marine ecosystem health. Pieces of this integrated ecosystem puzzle range from social indicators (e.g., fishing, population growth, and wastewater input) to biological indicators (e.g., numbers of reef fish and coral disease) to climate and ocean indicators (e.g., sea level rise, ocean temperature, and coral bleaching). The research team used these indicators to portray a “big picture” of West Hawai‘i in the recently published West Hawai‘i Integrated Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystem Trends and Status Report.

Key findings of the report:

  • The population of Hawai‘i Island has increased by 320% in the last 56 years, increasing pressures that threaten the region’s marine environment.
  • More than 85% of onsite wastewater disposal in West Hawai‘i occurs via cesspools, where waste receives no treatment prior to disposal, resulting in pollution of nearshore marine environments.
  • From 2003–2014, mean fish length, an indicator of adult reef fish size, showed a decreasing trend in West Hawai‘i.
  • Herbivorous (plant-eating) fishes, which are important for coral reef ecosystem resilience, have declined in biomass across West Hawai‘i in the past 12 years.
  • Total fish abundance has shown an increasing trend while juvenile yellow tang, which comprise ~85% of the total aquarium fish catch, increased approximately 3–4 fold.
  • From 2003–2014, hard coral cover declined by nearly one third in the North and has remained relatively constant over the same time period in the South.
  • In 2015, an estimated 40-80% of corals bleached in the West Hawai‘i region.
  • Annual rainfall has been at or below the long-term average in the past 15 years while the intensity of short-term events has increased.
  • Sea-level is expected to rise 0.48 m (1.57 ft) from present day levels by 2100.

Coral bleaching was widespread in West Hawai‘i in 2015. This photograph shows a bleached cauliflower coral (Pocillopora damicornis).

Although the report compiles many relevant indicators used to help track changes in the ecosystem of West Hawai‘i, some gaps remain. The evaluation of information and development of ecosystem indicators is an ongoing process. Nevertheless, this interdisciplinary report highlights the connections across different components of West Hawaii’s marine ecosystem—providing an important “big picture” context as we move toward ecosystem-based management in the region.


[1] Jokiel PL, Brown EK, Friedlander A, Rodgers K, Smith WR (2004) Hawai‘i coral reef assessment and monitoring program: Spatial patterns and temporal dynamics in reef coral communities. Pacific Science 58:159-174.
Posted in Ecosystems and Oceanography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

BFISH: Studying the Deep 7 to support sustainable fisheries

by Ben Richards and Amanda Dillon

The “Deep 7” are seven fish species that live near the seafloor in deep water off the coast of Hawai‘i: onaga, opakapaka, ehu, kalekale, gindai, lehi and hapu‘upu‘u. These bottomfish are incredibly valuable both economically and culturally in Hawai‘i. We want to do our part to make sure these fish are never over-fished, but survive and thrive as a sustainable Hawaiian fishery into the future.

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At the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, we are trying to discover how many bottomfish live around the main Hawaiian Islands. In September, we launched an independent survey to count and measure bottomfish by working with local fishermen and using new underwater camera technology. Knowing more about these mysterious deep dwellers, we can continue to improve the science used for management and help support sustainable fishing practices.

The primary goal of the #BFISH survey (Bottomfish Fishery-Independent Survey in Hawai‘i) is to get a snapshot of the numbers and sizes of each species of bottomfish around the main Hawaiian Islands. First, we are working with local fishers through the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group (PIFG) to collect data at various, scientifically-selected sites around all eight of Hawaii’s main islands. This method of research fishing is standardized across vessels—each fisherman uses the same set up of hooks, line, and bait. Fishermen record the species, number, and size of each fish they catch. They also take pictures of their survey efforts and send the fish back to us at the Science Center, where we will use tissue samples to determine the age and maturity of each fish.


Onaga, Long-Tail Red snapper (Etelis coruscans)

The second phase of the #BFISH survey began today aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Researchers will deploy a new underwater camera system called MOUSS (Modular Optical Underwater Survey System) to collect video footage of bottomfish in their natural habitat. MOUSS is a stereo-video camera system that can record images of bottomfish without artificial lights. From this video footage, we will be able to observe, identify, count, and measure each fish—even if they aren’t biting.

NOAA Fisheries is committed to cooperative research to build relationships with the community and improve the collection of scientific information. Data collected on this research survey will guide sustainable fisheries and resource management for the Deep 7 species and the overall ecosystem. We are pleased to have the continued partnership of the local fishing community in this exciting new endeavor. Follow our research mission #BFISH on Twitter at @NOAAFish_PIFSC.

Posted in Fisheries Research and Monitoring, Scientific Operations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Data do not speak for themselves” – Analyzing social science data in Micronesia

by Supin Wongbusarakum
Coral reef along the coastline of the Rock Islands, Palau.

Coral reef along the coastline of the Rock Islands, Palau.

Data do not speak for themselves; there is always an interpreter, or a translator (Ratcliffe 1983[1]).

While nature conservation and natural resource management efforts are increasing throughout the Pacific Islands, the importance of balancing ecological health with human well-being is also increasingly recognized. In Micronesia, the ocean spans nearly three million square miles and is home to approximately 500 species of corals and 1,300 species of fish. But it is also home to more than half a million people living in communities with a close relationship with both land and sea.

These relationships are now being profoundly challenged by external factors such as the global economy and the impacts of a changing climate. In the vast region of Micronesia, effective conservation means ensuring sustainable livelihoods through subsistence and earned income, maintaining cultural integrity, engaging in good natural resource governance, and promoting environmental education[2]. We know these different aspects of conservation are all important, but how do we know if they are actually being carried out consistently and sustainably in the region? How do we know if conservation and natural resource management have contributed to positive changes in the region without adverse human impacts?


Woodcarving detail that depicts a famous story of a magical breadfruit tree (from the Etpison Museum, Palau).

In 2010, we launched socioeconomic monitoring in Micronesia based on SEM-Pasifika (Socioeconomic Monitoring Guidelines for Coastal Managers in Pacific Island Countries). This community-based monitoring effort aims to better understand the conditions of communities in areas with active resource management. In the past few years, we offered several socioeconomic assessment training sessions based on SEM-Pasifika in Micronesia and also provided technical assistance to local teams who collect qualitative and quantitative data in the field. Last year, I conducted a capacity needs assessment to identify further gaps in knowledge and information. The results showed an immediate need for analysis of social science data.

To address this issue, I worked with a network of partner organizations to hold a socioeconomic data analysis workshop in Koror, Palau from September 12-17, 2016. The workshop was funded by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, with support from many partners—including the Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, Pacific Islands Managed and Protected Areas Community, Micronesia Conservation Trust, Palau International Coral Reef Center, and several other organizations and agencies involved in marine conservation and resource management in Micronesia. Participants attended from Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap), Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Hawai‘i.

Matt Gorstein, Social Scientist and Natural Resource Economist from NOAA’s Hollings Marine Laboratory, joined me as a co-trainer. Combining his experience and expertise in analyzing socioeconomic data from the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program—and using preliminary data collected from the NOAA Habitat Blueprint site in Manell-Geus, Guam as well as other sites in Micronesia and Hawai‘i—we had a fully packed and productive training covering a wide range of topics. We started with data entry, created a code-book, and documented work-flow, while also addressing differences among qualitative (e.g. from interviews) and quantitative data (from surveys). We discussed the use of best practices in data entry, management, and analysis. Matt and I provided a comprehensive overview of how to use IBM’s Statistical Package for Social Science (SPSS) to run descriptive and inferential statistics. The training was regularly reinforced by hands-on exercises and summarized with quizzes.

In the course evaluation, the majority of participants rated the overall training as being extremely useful. One of the participants said, I feel much more confident in examining social survey data more critically. I have stronger ability in designing future assessment with stronger understanding in how data is analyzed.” Another participant stated, “I actually learned more in this workshop than the stats class. Also SPSS is such a useful tool and I am glad I know how to use it now.” With the skills and knowledge gained in this workshop, we hope that the participants will be able to analyze and interpret socioeconomic data more effectively. Their new skills will support efforts to improve coastal and marine resource management and conservation—while balancing ecological health with social well-being.


Trainers and participants of Socioeconomic Data Analysis Training Workshop. Back row, left to right: Angel Jonathan (Conservation Society of Pohnpei), Kailikea Shayler (Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Aquatic Resources), Matt Gorstein (NOAA Hollings Marine Laboratory), Bond Segal (Kosrae Conservation and Safety Organization), Jane Dia (Guam Department of Agriculture, Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources), Mochieg Reyuw (Yap Community Action Program), Kodep Ogumoro-Uludong (Micronesia Islands Nature Alliance), Rachael Nash (Micronesia Challenge Regional Office) Front row, left to right: Noelle Oldiais (independent researcher, formerly Palau International Coral Reef Center), Erin Zanre (Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Aquatic Resources), Supin Wongbusarakum (PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program), Marybelle Quinata (NOAA Guam Field Office), Lincy Marino (Palau International Coral Reef Center), Alicia Edwards (Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority)

[1] Ratcliffe, J. W. 1983. Notions of validity in qualitative research methodology. Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization 5(2), 147-167.
[2] Based on results of Micronesia Challenge 1st (2012) and 2nd (2015) Socioeconomic Measures Workshops and Micronesia Challenge Measures Working Group Scorecards Workshop (2016).
Posted in coral reef ecosystem | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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


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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