The People Aboard NOAA’s ARC: Teams Laysan and Lisianski

Get to know the bold field biologists stationed on remote islands for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment & Recovery Camps.

Every year (since the 1980s!), the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has deployed camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to monitor and help recover the population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. These assessment and recovery camps, or ARCs, are deployed from large NOAA research vessels. Large vessels are necessary because they need to transport everything that field staff at five camps will require for their three to five month season in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. You can follow the latest deployment cruise on our Story Map. We thought it would be nice for you to get to know the dedicated biologists of our monk seal ARCs and will introduce them over a series of three blogs.


Map of Laysan Island.

Team Laysan

Famous for endangered birds (Laysan duck, Laysan finch) and historical ecological destruction (island-denuding rabbits, guano mining), Laysan Island is also currently home to one of the most robust Hawaiian monk seal subpopulations. Days at Laysan can be long and hot and a scientist doing a complete survey has to make a roughly six-mile walk in the sand. They chalk up a lot of miles saving monk seals.


Team Laysan about to embark: (L-R) Helena Dodge, Hope Ronco, Kristen Tovar (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Hope Ronco (4th  season) – Having spent many seasons in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with NOAA’s monk seal camps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hope has decided that her favorite smell is the scent of albatross (just adult albatross, not chicks, albatross chicks smell like “fish barf” according to Hope).

Helena Dodge (1st season) – Helena once happened to join a road trip across Australia’s outback with two women she’d never met and they enjoyed great adventures. Now Helena looks forward to adventures on Laysan Island with two more women she just met, her fantastic camp mates!

Kristen Tovar (1st season) – Monk seals are a big scale up for Kristen who previously studied invertebrates. For her senior thesis, she actually milked cone snails. (We had to google it.)

Laysan Offload

Laysan team settles in to their new island home (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).


Map of Lisianski Island.

Team Lisianski

Lisianski Island – population two. This tiny island is just the tip of a vast coral bank. Lisianski is easily traversable and hosts the smallest camp population in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Every year growing Tournefortia shrubs make camp a little different to come home to.


Team Lisianski about to embark: (L-R) Brittany Dolan, Keelan Barcina (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Keelan Barcina (3rd  season) – Keelan began his monk seal career as a literal monk seal for his 6th grade play. He has since moved up to monk seal camp leader. He had to leave the costume at home as it didn’t pass quarantine inspection.

Brittany Dolan (2nd season) – The camp’s eternal optimist, Brittany still secretly believes in unicorns and dragons. Thankfully, dedicated biologists like Brittany help keep Hawaiian monk seals from going the way of imaginary or forgotten creatures.


Team Lisianski – proud sole residents of Lisianski Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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Voices from the Hawai‘i Island bottomfishery

In mid-February I was sitting on Craig Severance’s porch overlooking Hilo Bay. The weather was a beautiful 80 degrees with light and variable winds – perfect conditions for bottomfishing out of Hilo, Hawai‘i. So we were fortunate that 14 bottomfishers from the Hilo and Kona coast sacrificed a great day on the water to come talk with us and contribute to the Hawai‘i Bottomfish Heritage Project. Over two days, fishermen with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group (PIFG) interviewed 14 bottomfishers from Hilo and the Kona coast. With 20-60 of years spent fishing for Hawai‘i’s prized Deep 7 bottomfish, these men had good stories to tell. And some even brought photographic evidence of the time they caught that 30lb Onaga.

Bill Wakefield and crew member with a large ‘ōkakapaka and hapu‘upu‘u caught in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

One thing we were curious to know is how they got into fishing in the first place. Bottomfishing requires a lot of time and effort to acquire the skill and knowledge to be proficient. Some of the bottomfishers we interviewed learned their traditions and techniques from their fathers and even their grandfathers. But sometimes their children were not interested in fishing, so the old timers picked a few people, or perhaps even just one person to share their knowledge with. One fisher told us about fishing with a Hawai‘i Island bottomfishing legend for ten years on ika shibi fishing trips (night-time handline fishing for ‘ahi using squid as bait) before he was even invited to go bottomfishing. To this day, out of respect for his mentor, this fisher still uses the same kākā rig that his mentor taught him nearly twenty years ago:


I stick to what I was taught. You know, we use small little 22 hooks, maybe about seven or eight hooks, a little double hook set up on the bottom and a little cone bag on the top. Drop ‘um down, three pound weight, hope for the best. Watch for the little wiggle. Some guys pop a little palu ‘ahi bag with like a double hook. The way I was taught was to use they call it a kākā line. Just a string of hooks and send ‘um down. I usually palu yeah, a little bit. I use a little cone bag at the top and I’ll put a little handful of some finely chopped palu. Maybe brings ‘um up a little bit.

Contemporary kākā bottomfishing rig, courtesy of Sueto Matsumoto

The kākā rig described in the quote, along with the traditional make dog bottomfishing rig, is based on ancient Hawaiian fishing practices that is still used extensively across Hawai‘i. The kākā rig is dropped to depths of 100-400 meters using weights and utilizes multiple short leaders with several hooks branching out from a main line.

We were also curious to know why people fish. Many fished to feed their family first, and were content to give away their remaining fish to friends and extended family:

[N]umber one [reason to fish] is to eat, number two, the extra give away. And I rarely sold my bottomfish because I wasn’t going out and catching big numbers. But if I did end up with large numbers, then I would sell it. And that was primarily to just make up some expenses.

This bottomfisher is describing what we would call consumption-oriented ‘expense fishing.’ While some fishers did regularly sell a majority (at least 90%) of their catch, nearly everyone reported giving away a portion of their catch to friends and family at certain times of the year. Many of those interviewed – even full-time commercial fishers – took trips to provide fish for special occasions such as the holidays, New Year’s, birthdays, graduations, or weddings. These types of trips highlight the social and cultural importance of bottomfish and the diverse motivations that trigger bottomfishing trips in Hawai‘i.

Raymond Kawamoto of Hilo shares some stories from a lifetime of bottomfishing in Hawai‘i

This project is just getting started. We look forward to sharing more insight from the oral histories once they are transcribed and analyzed. We are grateful to the fishers on Hawai‘i Island for sharing their time, their pictures, bringing along their fishing gear, and most importantly, sharing their stories. We’re excited to share more from the other islands soon.

This project is supported by NOAA Preserve America Initiative and a National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Region Cooperative Research grant.

For more information about this research feel free to contact us:

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

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The People Aboard NOAA’s ARC: Team French Frigate Shoals

Get to know the bold field biologists stationed on remote islands for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Assessment & Recovery Camps.

Every year (since the 1980s!), the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has deployed camps in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to monitor and help recover the population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. These assessment and recovery camps, or ARCs, are deployed from large NOAA research vessels. Large vessels are necessary because they need to transport everything that field staff at five camps will require for their three to five month season in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. You can follow the latest deployment cruise on our Story Map. We thought it would be nice for you to get to know the dedicated biologists of our monk seal ARCs and will introduce them over a series of three blogs.


Unloading buckets of camp gear and food at French Frigate Shoals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Team French Frigate Shoals

French Frigate Shoals

Map of islands in French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The French Frigate Shoals team tackles one of the toughest sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands when it comes to monk seal research and conservation. The seal team must survey many islets across a large atoll and spend much of their time monitoring shark predation activities at Trig Island and the Gin Islands. They pay special attention to pups at these islets and scoop them up to move them to another location in the atoll before they become prey for resident Galapagos sharks. To read more about the shark predation issue check out our webpage. The turtle team on French Frigate Shoals will attempt to survey the largest nesting area for Hawaiian green sea turtles. Both the seal and turtle teams will survey the declining infrastructure that was used to create Tern Island and now poses an entrapment hazard for seals, turtles, and birds.


Meet the Team at French Frigate Shoals: (Back L-R) Josh Carpenter, Sean Guerin, Shawn Farry, Jan Willem Staman, (Front L-R) Ali Northey, Alex Reininger, Marylou Staman (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Hawaiian Monk Seal Team

Shawn Farry (14th season) – Shawn been working at French Frigate Shoals long enough to remember when there were 800 seals at the atoll (now home to less than 200) and no digital photos or photo databases – he can make a perfect sketch of a seal’s identifying marks in moments! 

Sean Guerin (4th season) – Sean was part of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program for several years before following his dream to learn the art of zymurgy (brewing beer). He brewed 900 barrels of beer last year, and will now spend the summer on a dry island in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Josh Carpenter (1st season) – Josh’s most recent marine mammal necropsy was a blue whale. We hope he doesn’t need to bring that skill set to this field season.

Ali Northey (1st season) – A gymnast from the University of Washington, this is Ali’s first time away from Washington for more than two weeks. May it be a homey camp!

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Team

Marylou Staman (1st season) – In three years of turtle research on Guam, Marylou saw 30 nesting females.  She’s looking forward to her first mass nesting site (she’ll beat 30 in no time)!

Jan Willem Staman (1st season) – Jan is making the big transition from being a full-time soccer player with the Guam national team to turtle wrangler on the French Frigate Shoals team.

Alex Reininger (1st season) – Alex has mostly known nesting sea turtles from those that strand and wash up on Oahu, she’s looking forward to seeing them alive and well on their nesting grounds.

Wish these campers a good season at their Tern Island camp at French Frigate Shoals!

Tern Island

Hawaiian monk seal and turtle camps set up along the decommissioned runway on Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals. The runway and buildings are from previous days when the island was an outpost for the U.S. Navy (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

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Feeling peppy with melon-headed whales off Guam

By Marie Hill, Adam Ü, Allan Ligon, and Tom Ninke

Melon-headed whales, affectionately called Peps because of their Latin name Peponocephala electra, were seen during the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Cetacean Research Program small-boat surveys off Guam (May 6-14, 2017).  We encountered a group of over 300 whales just south of Facpi Point on the southwest side of the island.

Melon-headed whales encountered near Guam. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

Peps are sometimes mistaken for pygmy killer whales because of their body size and color. Although there are some subtle differences in body color and shape, group size is usually a pretty good indicator of species.  We typically see Peps in groups of 100 or more individuals, whereas pygmy killer whales occur in groups of 50 or fewer.

Melon-headed whale spy-hopping off Guam. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Marie Hill

The last time that we saw Peps off Guam was in April 2014.  We will be able to use the photo-identification images we took during both sightings to learn if any of the 2014 whales were present this year.  During this year’s encounter, we collected 12 biopsy samples to use for genetic analyses and deployed two satellite tags to study the movements of individuals. We have received transmissions from one of the satellite tags.  The most recent transmission was from May 13 when the tagged whale was off of Galvez Banks (southwest of Guam).

Melon-headed whale sighting location (white dot) off Facpi Point, Guam. The red line shows the satellite-tracked movements of a whale that was tagged during the sighting.

Check out the video of some underwater footage that we took during the encounter, which shows how closely associated these highly social whales live their lives.

Yes, that is indeed Pep poo at the 0:11 mark.


All survey operations including satellite tagging, photo-identification, and biopsy sampling were conducted under NMFS permit. Funding was provided by NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet. We would like to thank the owner and captains of Ten27, the Guam NOAA Fisheries field office, and all of our volunteers during the surveys.


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What happens to reef fish after coral bleaching?

by Adel Heenan

For the past month, researchers aboard the NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai have been navigating across the Pacific Ocean to survey coral reef ecosystems at remote Wake Atoll and the Mariana Archipelago. This expedition includes additional surveys at Jarvis Island, in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, to assess the reef condition and degree of recovery from a catastrophic coral bleaching event in 2014-2015.

Jarvis Island is located in the central Pacific Ocean, close to the equator, and is a small island in the direct path of a deep current that flows east (Figure 1). Because of it’s position right on the equator and the strong currents hitting the island, Jarvis sits in the middle of a major upwelling zone—where cold nutrient rich water is drawn up from the deep. This water fertilizes the whole area, elevating nutrient levels and productivity in the reef ecosystem (Gove et al., 2006). As a result, Jarvis supports exceptionally high biomass of planktivorous and piscivorous fishes (Williams et al., 2015).

Because it is unpopulated and extremely remote, Jarvis provides an important reference point and opportunity to understand the natural structure, function, and variation in coral reef ecosystems. The island also offers a natural laboratory in which the effects of ocean warming can be assessed in the absence of stressors that impact coral reefs where humans are present (e.g., fishing or land-based sources of pollution).

El Niño, La Niña and the global coral bleaching event of 2014-2015
The Equatorial Pacific upwelling at Jarvis alternates between warm El Niño years, when upwelling is weak and oceanic productivity low, and cold La Niña years where upwelling is strong and productivity is high (Gove et al., 2006). Unusually warm sea surface temperatures, and a strong El Niño in 2014-2015, triggered the third recorded global coral bleaching event. At Jarvis, these warmer waters led to widespread coral bleaching and mortality. High sea surface temperatures in 2015 also impacted upwelling at Jarvis, as evidenced by a decrease in the primary productivity around the island.

Teams from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program recently completed ecological monitoring at Jarvis from April 2–5, 2017. They collected data at 28 stationary point count sites (Figure 2) this year, 30 in 2016, 62 in 2015, 42 in 2012, and 30 in 2010.


Figure 2. The stationary point count method is used to monitor the fish assemblage and benthic communities at the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) sites.

Main Observations
Fish biomass tended to be highest on the western side of the island where equatorial upwelling occurs (Figure 3). In 2016, we observed somewhat reduced total fish and total planktivore biomass (Figure 4), but this reduction was within the normal range of observed variability.

There were some significant reductions observed for individual species in 2016. These reductions were noticeable across multiple trophic groups, for instance the planktivorous Whitley’s fusilier (Luzonichthys whitleyi), Olive anthias (Pseudanthias olivaceus), Dark-banded fusilier (Pterocaesio tile), the piscivorous Island trevally (Carangoides orthogrammus), and the coral-dwelling Arc-eyed hawkfish (Paracirrhites arcatus) which is strongly associated with Pocillopora coral heads. Some of these species had returned to previous ranges by 2017, but others remain depleted (Figure 5).


Figure 5. Mean species biomass (± standard error) per survey year at Jarvis.

Very high levels of coral mortality were evident in 2016 surveys and coral cover remained low in 2017. Notably, macroalgal cover increased in 2017, approximately by the amount of coral cover lost in 2016 (Figure 6).


Figure 6. Mean percentage cover estimates (± standard error) of benthic habitat per survey year at Jarvis. Data shown for Hard Coral (top, red); macrolagae (middle, green) and CCA: crustose coralline algae (bottom, orange). Note: no benthic data are available for 2008 as we began collected rapid visual estimates of these benthic functional groups in 2010.

Whether this reduction in specific planktivore, piscivore, and live coral-dwelling fish species is a widespread and long-standing shift in the fish assemblages at Jarvis will be the subject of forthcoming research. It seems plausible that they reflect impacts of a prolonged period of reduced food availability and changes to preferred habitat due to the anomalous warm sea conditions in 2014–2015. Our teams will return to Jarvis in 2018 to conduct another assessment in an attempt to answer some of these questions.


An emaciated grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchus) observed during a 2017 fish survey. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Adel Heenan)

Additional detail on survey methods and sampling design are available in the full monitoring brief: Jarvis Island time trends 2008-2017.

Gove J. et al. (2006) Temporal variability of current-driven upwelling at Jarvis Island. J Geo Res: Oceans 111, 1-10, doi: 10.1029/2005JC003161.
Williams I. et al. (2015) Human, oceanographic and habitat drivers of central and western Pacific coral reef fish assemblages. PLoS 10: e0120516, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120516.


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Uncovering the Mysteries of the Mesopelagic

By Beth Francis, Bangor University UK

Have you ever thought about the mysterious dwellers of the deep ocean? Six months ago, I thought of these species only as scary-looking creatures in horror movies and nature documentaries. Now, after flying across the world twice to study these alien-like inhabitants of the depths up-close, I was inspired to investigate the mysteries of mesopelagic and why these deep ocean dwellers are important to all of us.


Alien? This amphipod, Phronima, is rumored to be the inspiration for the alien queen in the 1986 movie “Aliens.” These small parasitoid crustaceans hollow out salps (barrel-shaped invertebrates) to lay eggs inside. To the left is a Phronima in its natural form and to the right is a female Phronima inhabiting a salp. The small specs are her hatched eggs, protected by the salp (Photo: Bangor University/Beth Francis).

I began my PhD in October 2016, based at Bangor University in North Wales, UK. My PhD is funded by the Envision Doctoral Training Program, through the UK Government Natural Environment Research Council, but my main focus is studying gradients in productivity near to islands in Hawai‘i. In the six months since beginning my project, I have been privileged to join NOAA researchers twice on the Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) expeditions to West Hawai‘i, to learn more about the mesopelagic community there.


Mesopelagic Marvels: A tiny nautilus, a type of shelled deep-sea cephalopod, similar to an octopus or squid (Photo: Bangor University, Beth Francis).

The middle or mesopelagic depths, also known as the “twilight zone” of the ocean (between 200-1000 meters or 650-3300 feet) may seem like another world, but it is much closer to home than you may think. This region plays a crucial role in our planet’s ecosystem. An estimated 90% of the world’s fish live in this zone, and while most aren’t commercially important species, they form a key part of the food web. These deeper dwellers, such as shrimp and squid, are prey for dolphins, whales, and for the fish we eat. The mesopelagic also plays an important role in removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, pumping carbon from the surface water deeper into the ocean (Siegel et al., 2014).


Deploying the Cobb trawl net to target mesopelagic organisms (Photo: University of Hawai‘i/Jana Phipps).

Despite the importance of this layer of the ocean, relatively little is known or understood about species distribution and interaction in Hawai‘i—and these are a few of the mysteries we are researching through the West Hawai‘i IEA project. The West Hawai‘i IEA is an on-going project, collecting information on the oceanic communities in the region. Back in September 2016, and for part of this recent IEA expedition, we collected deep-sea organisms both nearshore and offshore of a known biological “hotspot” site. The goal is to quantify the abundance and diversity of organisms at both sites in order to understand why a greater density of these deep-sea dwellers is found closer to shore.

In order to sample the mesopelagic, we use a giant mid-water trawling net called the Cobb trawl. During Cobb trawls, we collect an array of weird and wonderful creatures of the deep, ranging from tiny to huge, cute and familiar, to very strange-looking! And most importantly, we have been able to collect a lot more information on the mesopelagic populations than ever before.


A free-swimming sea snail colloquially known as a sea butterfly because of its wing-like foot (Photo: Bangor University/Beth Francis).

So, what have we learned so far? Initial results collected last September have given us some really interesting information, suggesting that there are significantly more (roughly three times as many) organisms close to shore compared to offshore. And during the most recent expedition, the same pattern seems to be holding up. These findings potentially support the theory that there is an increased primary productivity near islands, and that this extends down into the deeper layers of the ocean. Hotspots in biological productivity, such as the one we are researching in West Hawai’i, could prove to be crucial in the longevity of the human interaction with the ocean, and act as a crucial natural refuge for changes to the climate in the future. We are hoping that the data we collect will help us to uncover some of these mysteries of the mesopelagic, and better understand the ocean in West Hawai’i and beyond.

Reference: Siegel, David A., et al., “Global assessment of ocean carbon export by combining satellite observations and food‐web models.” Global Biogeochemical Cycles 28.3 (2014): 181-196.
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