Hawaiian monk seals and pathogens: An ounce of prevention

by Michelle Barbieri

Ever wondered how to reboot a propane-powered refrigerator? Flipping it upside-down is actually a viable strategy. This is the latest challenge overcome by our remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands field teams in the initial stages of the summer 2017 Assessment and Recovery Camp’s monk seal vaccination program.


Map of the Hawaiian Archipelago with the Northwest Hawaiian Islands outlined.

Getting vaccinated for us humans usually means a quick trip to the doctor. We take our pets to the vet for their “shots.” For some wildlife, rabies vaccines are distributed in bait across the continent. But what about vaccinating marine wildlife, especially those that live in remote locations and may travel hundreds of miles? The hurdles are high, the path is uncharted, and no matter how much you plan and prepare, there are going to be times when flipping refrigerators upside-down is the vital solution.


Simple living in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands – the kitchen tent at Pearl and Hermes Reef field camp (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s vaccination efforts began in 2016, vaccinating seals on Oahu and Kauai against morbillivirus in order to prevent an outbreak that could be catastrophic for the species. To our knowledge, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal has never suffered from a morbillivirus outbreak, but recently, researchers have found other species of morbillivirus in Hawaii and the greater Pacific region. We know the monk seals are naïve (unexposed) to morbillivirus from decades of disease surveillance in the species. While that’s a good thing, we’d like to keep it that way!  When morbillivirus outbreaks have occurred in other marine mammals, the results were rapid and deadly, killing tens of thousands of seals and dolphins in Europe and North America.  With only about 1400 left in the world, the endangered population of Hawaiian monk seals can’t take such losses.

Recently, researchers developed mathematical models to estimate how an outbreak would spread if morbillivirus were introduced, say from another seal species or a dog. The results confirmed our fears–the monk seal population could be devastated. Vaccination is a proactive way to protect the monk seal, rather than waiting until the virus shows up to treat it.

Seal Population chart

What would happen in a seal population facing a rapidly spreading morbillivirus outbreak without vaccination? The red bump shows the peak of infected seals, the green line shows the rapid accumulation of seals “removed” from the susceptible seals (either after overcoming infection or succumbing to it).

Over the last 10 years, a vaccine (made for ferrets!) was evaluated for use in captive seals, including Hawaiian monk seals. After years of testing, planning, and practice, the vaccine was given to the first wild monk seals in 2016. Each seal needs two shots, about four weeks apart. Those efforts protected most of the seals around Kauai and Oahu and represented the start of the world’s first-ever species-wide vaccination program in wild marine mammals.

Now, in 2017, we are expanding the monk seal vaccination program to protect seals in the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But launching this initiative across a span of more than 1,000 miles on remote, low-lying sandy islands and atolls is an entirely unique process with a lot of logistics to figure out. We’ve had to think of everything from propane fridges to keep vaccines cold, to min-max thermometers to monitor their temperatures in the field, to PVC pipe cases to keep sand out of syringes (which we fasten into “pole syringes”). We even modified our monk seal databases to track the vaccinated seals for the rest of their lives. We also need to vaccinate a LOT of seals to make a meaningful dent in the susceptibility of the monk seal population. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, monk seal populations are larger and denser than we’re used to in the main Hawaiian Islands. A disease would have more opportunities to jump between each seal and spread rapidly; therefore, we must vaccinate many more seals on these remote islands in order to achieve the same level of protection as the main islands.

Nihau seals

Many seals share the beach on Nihoa Island. Denser seal populations with lots of contact between animals are common in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

For nearly two months, field staff trained and practiced safely administering injections, and are now beginning to vaccinate seals. It’s just the first week of field camps and already 12 seals received vaccines. Another 25 seals have been vaccinated at Midway Atoll during short-term staff deployments. There’s still a long way to go, but we are well on our way to protecting these precious animals against a deadly outbreak.


Vaccination mission at Laysan: Helena preps the pole syringe with a vaccine dose; Kristen sneaks up on a sleeping seal to carefully deliver a vaccine; Hope runs from another after successfully vaccinating (and surprising!) the seal. Note: a syringe on a long pole is the least intrusive way that scientists can give vaccinations to seals for their protection. It’s important to keep your distance from seals. (Photos: NOAA Fisheries)

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).

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.

Return to Tern

Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals, within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, houses a remote field station used by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA’s PIFSC. In December of 2012 Tern Island was devastated by a localized storm with extreme winds that literally blew the facilities on the island apart. No one stationed on the island was seriously injured during the event. However, the field station was rendered uninhabitable and all personnel were evacuated.

A view of the courtyard after the storm.  Photo provided by FWS blog.

A view of the courtyard after the storm. Photo provided by FWS blog.

Walls blown out of the common room.  Photo provided by FWS blog.

Walls blown out of the common room. Photo provided by FWS blog.

In March, 2013, a nine person team and supplies were assembled and transported aboard the M/V Kahana to Tern Island. Two members of the nine person team were PIFSC’s Jamie Barlow and Mark Sullivan. The other seven members were U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees and volunteers. The goal of this “Return to Tern” was to assess, clean, organize, repair, and reestablish the field station within two weeks.

Team members offload from M/V Kahana and stage gear on Tern.

Team members offload from M/V Kahana and stage gear on Tern.

PIFSC’s two team members were given several lofty goals to achieve during the two weeks. Despite conditions, Jamie Barlow and Mark Sullivan accomplished the primary and a few ancillary goals set before them. Jamie restored three Boston Whalers to full operational status and got a back-up outboard motor functioning and safely stored for later use. Mark Sullivan inventoried, organized, and staged gear for the monk seal camp that will be established this July. Mark also carried out an extensive reorganization of PIFSC’s boat shed, office, necropsy room, and hazmat locker. Working together, Jamie and Mark plumbed barrels of potable water brought aboard the M/V Kahana into the field stations potable water system; sorted and safely stored all the gas on Tern Island; got the field station’s diesel generator functioning; tagged seven juvenile monk seals; and performed a survey of monk seals for the entire atoll. PIFSC’s also donated a 60hp Yamaha outboard and spare Yahama parts to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service boat fleet. In the end, the nine member team collaborated and worked diligently to persevere and accomplish the overall objective of reestablishing the field station.

Mark Sullivan (left) and Jamie Barlow (right) repairing a Boston Whaler.

Mark Sullivan (left) and Jamie Barlow (right) repairing a Boston Whaler.