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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

What do a plastic toy, a mismatched pair of slippers, and hagfish trap have in common? They all wash up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands!

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A beach at Laysan Island littered with a vast variety of marine debris. (NMFS Photo)

Even these extremely remote, uninhabited, and protected islands are littered with marine debris.  In fact, islands in the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago can be particularly inundated with debris due to their proximity to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a current that can carry and concentrate debris that enters the ocean from points throughout the Pacific.

But does marine debris still make a beach ugly if no sunbathers are there to see it?  Yes!  Marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands poses a serious threat to sea birds that can mistakenly eat plastic materials or feed it to their young, and to endangered Hawaiian monk seals that can become dangerously entangled in debris.

During the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s Assessment and Recovery Camps, biologists don’t just study the seals, they also work to safeguard the environment for monk seals and other wildlife.  During the 2016 field season, monk seal field teams have been collecting marine debris as part of an archipelago-wide beach clean-up.  They also removed debris from established plots to assess the rate of debris accumulation. One team spent 6 hours to remove all the debris from just a 20m plot! And, of course, they removed entanglement hazards as they arose.  This marks the second year that the monk seal team has been collaborating with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s marine debris team to make the NWHI a better place for wildlife.

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Monk seals easily become entangled in nets, line, or other debris as they rest or investigate foreign material. (NMFS Photo)

As part of the on-going research cruise on the Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette, our crews have been removing the season’s worth of debris from the islands.  Teams removed 4 debris super sacks (large bags weighing 100-500 lb each!) from Laysan Island and 5 super sacks from Lisianski Island.  So far, over 3,300 lb of debris have been hoisted onto the Sette.  And more is waiting at other camps!  And it’s just a drop in the bucket!  Every field biologist in the camps expressed satisfaction in removing so much debris, but frustration at the amount that still remains and continues to accumulate.

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Camp and cruise personnel heft large super sacks of debris from Lisianski Island into a small boat that will transport the debris to the Sette. (NMFS Photo)

But on the bright side – excess debris does lead to creativity.  Some campers get pretty crafty with marine debris!

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Team Lisianski made a nice camp sign out of a washed up plastic lid. (NMFS Photo)

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Field biologist Ilana Nimz used derelict fishing line and floats to weave a dream catcher – dreaming of a debris free beach! (NMFS Photo)

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

The final count: cruise for monitoring of effects of ocean and climate change in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands completed

By Chip Young

Scientists from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) recently completed a 17-day expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where they conducted coral reef monitoring surveys at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island, and French Frigate Shoals. These 3 locations are part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage Site, the third largest marine protected area on Earth and the largest conservation area in the United States.

This PIFSC research cruise (HA-13-05) aboard the NOAA Ship Hi`ialakai implemented a standardized set of methods for the measurement of fluctuations in the region’s coral reef ecosystems caused by global climate change. NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Plan (NCRMP) outlines the importance of monitoring changes in temperature and the chemical composition of ocean waters within which the coral reef ecosystems of the United States are found. Coral reefs are fragile biological systems that have been observed to live best in specific ranges of water temperatures and composition parameters. Changes in either of these ranges can cause a coral reef system to malfunction, through problematic processes that are familiar to much of the general public. Such processes, including coral bleaching (a result of increased ocean temperatures) and ocean acidification (a result of a drop in the ocean’s pH), affect the ability of corals and other reef organisms to calcify or “build their houses.” Other potential effects can occur, as well, such as shifts in biogeochemical cycles, shifts in species diversity, and changes in the ocean’s food web.

Jamison Gove and Chip Young of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division deploy oceanographic instrumentation on Sept. 13 at Lisianski Island as part of the recent research cruise to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. NOAA photo by Oliver Vetter

Jamison Gove and Chip Young of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division deploy oceanographic instrumentation on Sept. 13 at Lisianski Island as part of the recent research cruise to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. NOAA photo by Oliver Vetter

As part of the implementation of the NCRMP, CRED scientists on Sept. 3–19 deployed 16 arrays of temperature sensors along various reef systems, installing a total of 64 instruments at depths of 1–25 m. At its specific location on a reef, each sensor records the seawater temperature at the same time as other sensors, every 5 min, over a period of 3 years. The resulting product is a high-resolution picture of temperature variability of 16 different reef systems across space (across the archipelago and to a depth of 25 m) and time (3-year deployment of each sensor).

During the monitoring cruise earlier this month, 100 calcification accretion units (CAUs), like the one shown above, were installed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by staff of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. CAUs are used to measure not only net reef calcification rates but also species-specific recruitment rates and the percent cover of corals, crustose coralline algae, and fleshy algae. NOAA photo

During the monitoring cruise earlier this month, 100 calcification accretion units (CAUs), like the one shown above, were installed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by staff of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. CAUs are used to measure not only net reef calcification rates but also species-specific recruitment rates and the percent cover of corals, crustose coralline algae, and fleshy algae. NOAA photo

CRED scientists and partners also collected samples of seawater for chemical analysis, conducted hydrocasts with a conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) instrument, and deployed installations designed to measure specific biological activities that can be affected by changes in the pH of a reef’s waters. Settling plates, known as calcification accretion units (CAUs), are used to measure net reef calcification rates, species-specific recruitment rates, and the percent cover of corals, crustose coralline algae, and fleshy algae. Bioerosion monitoring units (BMUs) are made up of precisely measured pieces of calcium carbonate, the material that makes up the skeletal structure of corals, and will provide a value for how much biological removal of reef structure is naturally present along the reef. Autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMS) essentially act as “hotels” for cryptic biota living within the matrix of a reef ecosystem and provide a standard method for evaluation of the existing community of sessile and mobile organisms found on a reef.

Including work conducted during this cruise and the earlier PIFSC cruise SE-13-05 to Kure Atoll in July, CRED scientists have installed 100 CAUs, 50 BMUs, and 24 ARMS throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands this year. Because monitoring activities associated with NCRMP are conducted on a triennial basis, CRED will return to these islands in 2016. At that time, researchers will retrieve and replace all instruments. NCRMP is a long-term project, and the goal of this work is to measure change over time. The results from this ongoing project will be available to help the managers of these remote islands monitor, evaluate, and predict the ecological effects of global climate change on the reefs of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.