Green Sea Turtle Nesting on Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

by Camryn D. Allen

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Sea Turtle Research Team members Alex Reininger, Marylou Staman, and Jan Willem Staman prepare to depart for the distant Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for five months, aboard NOAA Ship Sette (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Shawn Murakawa).

Meet the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Sea Turtle Research Team
Marylou Staman (1st season) – Marylou conducted three years of sea turtle research on Guam, and only saw 30 individual nesting females.  She’s seen almost 14x that number in the first few weeks of the nesting season!
Jan Willem Staman (1st season) – Jan is making the big transition from being a full-time soccer player with the Guam national team to a turtle researcher 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 enjoying seeing them alive and well on their nesting grounds.

East Island

Welcome to East Island, Elevation 8 ft and Population of two Northwestern Hawaiian Island researchers! (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers)

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sea turtle researcher team (Marylou, Alex, and Jan) arrived on French Frigate Shoals on May 30th to assess the number of nesting female green turtles because 96% of Hawaiian green turtle nesting occurs at French Frigate Shoals on East, Tern, Trig, and Gin Islands. Since then, they have identified 150 basking males and 416 nesting females. The peak of the nesting season has begun and the researchers have already seen 5 times the number of nesting females compared to the number of females seen for the whole season in 2016. So, 2017 will be a ‘whopper’ of a year, however, it is still less than our greatest nesting season with 811 nesting females on East Island (only) in 2014! Some of the turtles seen this year are turtles previously tagged on East Island during nesting events over 17 years ago and five other turtles seen this year were originally tagged during in-water captures in the main Hawaiian Islands (some as juveniles over 15 years ago)!

East Island Nesters

Green sea turtles nesting on remote atoll East Island, French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).

L2

“Hiwahiwa” or L2 has been nesting on East Island for 15 years. Her nesting migration to East Island in 2010 was tracked with the attached satellite tag (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Tammy Summers).

We want to highlight one particular turtle, L2, tagged by Hawaiian green turtle expert George Balazs. L2 is also known as “Hiwahiwa” – meaning precious, favorite – by Mālama Na Honu volunteers on the North Shore of Oahu. Hiwahiwa was originally found alive on Laniakea beach, Oahu with an impact lesion to her shell in December of 2001. After 11 days of rehabilitation at NOAA facilities, Hiwahiwa was released back into the wild. A few months later, in June of 2002, she was seen nesting on East Island. Since 2002, Hiwahiwa has been seen basking in the sun every year at Laniakea beach and in 2009, she was outfitted with a satellite tag so that scientists could learn more about her migration patterns. During the nesting season in 2010, Hiwahiwa was re-sighted back on East Island digging a nest (see photos with satellite tag attached). Just a few days ago, the sea turtle research team saw her digging a nest; fifteen years after the first time she was seen nesting on East Island!

The research team return to Oahu at the end of the nesting season (September) and will bring with them valuable information to determine the number of green turtles in the Hawaiian population. This data is important for designating whether the species is threatened or endangered so that we can effectively manage this distinct population of turtles.

All research conducted and photos taken under permit approval.

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.

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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.

FFS_Team

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).

The final count: team removes 14 metric tons of marine debris from Midway Atoll

By Kevin O’Brien
James Morioka, Kerrie Krosky, Kristen Kelly, Tomoko Acoba, Kevin O’Brien, Kerry Reardon, Edmund Coccagna, Joao Garriques, and Russell Reardon (clockwise from upper right) pose on April 18 atop the large, 13,795-kg pile of derelict fishing gear and plastic debris collected during their 21-day mission at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by Edmund Coccagna

James Morioka, Kerrie Krosky, Kristen Kelly, Tomoko Acoba, Kevin O’Brien, Kerry Reardon, Edmund Coccagna, Joao Garriques, and Russell Reardon (clockwise from upper right) pose on April 18 atop the large, 13,795-kg pile of derelict fishing gear and plastic debris collected during their 21-day mission at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by Edmund Coccagna

Members of the marine debris team of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) returned to Honolulu on April 19 from a 21-day marine debris survey and removal effort at Midway Atoll. Since the last blog update on April 15, the 9-member team conducted an additional 6 days of operations, bringing the grand total for the entire mission to nearly 14 metric tons (13,795 kg) of derelict fishing gear and plastic debris removed from the reefs and shorelines of this remote atoll in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage Site.

Russell Reardon on March 31 removes a large derelict fishing net from the reef at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

Russell Reardon on March 31 removes a large derelict fishing net from the reef at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

In addition to the removal of debris, the team also conducted a pilot study of accumulation rates of marine debris in nearshore waters and along shorelines at Midway Atoll, continued to test protocols for assessment of benthic injuries related to marine debris, and surveyed for debris items potentially related to the Japan tsunami event of March 2011. Results from these secondary projects are not yet available at this early date.

Tomoko Acoba, Russell Reardon, Kerrie Krosky, and Joao Garriques remove a large, buried derelict fishing net from the shoreline of Eastern Island on April 6. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

Tomoko Acoba, Russell Reardon, Kerrie Krosky, and Joao Garriques remove a large, buried derelict fishing net from the beach at Eastern Island on April 6. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

What can be reported is the success of the main mission to survey and remove marine debris. In total, the team surveyed 43% of the shallow-reef areas of Midway Atoll that historically have been shown to contain high densities of marine debris. All derelict fishing gear found during in-water surveys was removed to mitigate entanglement of the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) and green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), which are listed as endangered and threatened, respectively, under the Endangered Species Act.

Although the marine debris removed from shallow-water reefs was composed entirely of derelict fishing gear, the shorelines of Midway Atoll yielded a diverse range of debris types and items. Derelict fishing gear and plastics ≥10 cm in size were removed from the totality of the shoreline areas of Eastern Island and Spit Island and from portions of Sand Island. Debris was then transported by boat to the seaplane tarmac on Sand Island. Once there, shoreline debris was sorted and tallied by category. This tally of debris makes for an interesting look at the breakdown of the types of debris that accumulate at Midway. The table below shows the top 20 debris types, by quantity, that were removed from the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this mission.

Midway_table copy

In addition to the debris listed in the table at right, many random oddities were collected during shoreline work: toilet seats, golf clubs, plastic swords, umbrella handles, soccer balls, truck tires, a snowboard boot, a bowling ball, a fireman’s helmet, a 15-m plastic pipe, a traffic barrier, and, of course, the 23.5-ft fishing boat that was confirmed as lost in the 2011 Japan tsunami event, among other things.

“Just about anything you can imagine that humans use in their day-to-day lives, you can find it washed up on the beaches,” says Joao Garriques, a member of the CRED marine debris team, in reference to shoreline surveys at Midway Atoll. “You just can’t predict what you might find up there, 1200 miles from the nearest city.”

Kevin O’Brien disentangles a Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) chick from a piece of derelict fishing net on April 10 on Eastern Island. NOAA photo

Kevin O’Brien disentangles a Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) chick from a piece of derelict fishing net on April 10 on Eastern Island. NOAA photo

Management of all the small plastics during removal operations can be a challenge. This season, the team used large “bulk bags” that were 1.2 by 1.2 m and could be lifted easily by crane—the kind of bags used for transportation of gravel and sand—to facilitate the movement of small plastic debris between islands via inflatable boat. The bags worked well for management of the thousands of small debris items collected during shoreline surveys. The importance of the removal of these smaller plastic items is evident at Midway Atoll, because Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) chicks frequently can be seen chewing curiously on debris or becoming entangled in small net pieces.

Edmund Coccagna on April 18 holds up a slipper and stands behind the other 885 slippers and rubber-soled shoes collected from the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this marine debris mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

Edmund Coccagna on April 18 holds up a slipper and stands behind the other 885 slippers and rubber-soled shoes collected from the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this marine debris mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

“The amount of plastics in the environment up here is pretty alarming,” says James Morioka, a member of the CRED marine debris team, after witnessing the amount of debris present on the shoreline of Eastern Island after only 9 months of accumulation since the last marine debris mission at Midway Atoll ended in July 2012. “Just trying to keep up with it is kind of overwhelming.”

Now back in Honolulu, the marine debris team is demobilizing and processing data. The success of this mission was due in great part to the assistance of the partners of the PIFSC-CRED Marine Debris Project: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, NOAA Marine Debris Program, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

This photo, taken at the end of this mission on April 18, shows some of the 4781 bottle caps collected from Midway Atoll shorelines by a 9-member team from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

This photo, taken at the end of this mission on April 18, shows some of the 4781 bottle caps collected from Midway Atoll shorelines by a 9-member team from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

The contents of this plastic crate make up just a portion of the 1249 cigarette lighters found on the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

The contents of the plastic crate in this photo make up just a portion of the 1249 cigarette lighters found on the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly