2023 Partners in the Spotlight Awards
In 2023, we recognized these partners who have expanded and enhanced recovery of our most imperiled marine species.
Atlantic Salmon: Joan Trial
Joan Trial passed away on March 5, 2023, after a short battle with cancer. Joan was a keen scientist, an incredible mentor, and a good friend to many throughout her career. In 2000, Joan was promoted into the Senior Biologist position with the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission which later became the Bureau of Sea-run Fisheries and Habitat within the Maine Department of Marine Resources. In this capacity, Joan supervised the assessment, research, and management activities surrounding endangered populations of Atlantic salmon in Maine. In her role, she represented Maine nationally on the U.S. Atlantic Salmon Assessment Committee and internationally on the ICES Working Group on North Atlantic Salmon and the International Joint Commission’s St. Croix River Board. Joan Trial retired from the Maine Department of Marine Resources in July of 2013. Even after departing her role in state government, she continued to make important contributions by co-authoring several peer-reviewed publications, serving on graduate committees, and working with Project SHARE to lead the assessment work related to habitat rehabilitation in the Narraguagus River.
Joan valued service and professionalism throughout her life. She was an active member of the American Fisheries Society, holding several positions in both the Atlantic International Chapter and the Northeast Division. Joan was awarded the Dwight A. Webster Memorial award in 2013 - the most prestigious recognition given by the Northeast Division of the American Fisheries Society.
Her intellect, enthusiasm, and gusto will not be replaced, but will be remembered fondly by many throughout northern New England and beyond.
Central California Coast Coho Salmon: Trout Unlimited’s North Coast Coho Project
Trout Unlimited's (TU) North Coast Coho Project (NCCP) was started in 1998 with the establishment of a new public-private partnership with the Mendocino Redwood Company in the Garcia River watershed. In this initial partnership, TU, Mendocino Redwood Company, and Pacific Watershed Associates worked with resource agencies to develop and fund restoration efforts on the South Fork of the Garcia River, important habitat for CCC coho salmon. This partnership and their initial efforts prevented 70 percent of estimated road-related sediment from reaching the river, equivalent to 3,500 full dump trucks.
NCCP is a conservation initiative of a large spatial scale. In partnership with timber and gravel companies, wine industry leaders, private landowners, and state and federal agencies, the NCCP is working cooperatively to restore CCC coho salmon habitat. The NCCP’s efforts include: assessing watershed conditions, developing and implementing projects to reduce sediment delivery to streams, installing large wood to provide cover and diversify instream habitat, and removing fish passage barriers. NCCP also significantly benefits local economies by creating jobs via focused watershed assessments, restoration construction, and fisheries population monitoring. NCCP’s ability to foster new, and strengthen existing partnerships with public and private landowners in Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin counties has accelerated progress on key actions identified in the 2021-2025 Priority Action Plan and CCC Coho Salmon Recovery Plan.
Since 2008, the NCCP has raised and leveraged nearly $25 million for habitat restoration for over 75 individual projects. NCCP was also a key participant in the SHaRP efforts. The NCCP team attended every watershed meeting, served on expert panels, and provided technical knowledge and insight, resulting in priority restoration actions identified by reach to address the most limiting factors. NCCP has received over $6 million in grant funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Restoring Fish Passage through Barrier Removal funding opportunity. This funding will support the removal of nine partial or total barriers in Mendocino County by constructing seven projects and designing two additional projects. The NCCP team has been instrumental in moving habitat restoration forward, and their ability to form diverse partnerships has been key in CCC coho salmon recovery efforts.
Cook Inlet Beluga Whale: Teresa Becher, Intern/Volunteer, University of Alaska Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula College & Alaska Wildlife Alliance
In 2013, Teresa Becher retired from 25 years of service as a peace officer for the California Highway Patrol and moved to Soldotna/Kenai, Alaska, where she returned to school and earned her undergraduate degree in Natural Science from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, with a focus on pre-veterinary medicine. Teresa became intrigued by Cook Inlet beluga whales and, through the NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program (AKBMP), Alaska Wildlife Alliance (AWA), and University of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula College (KPC), began monitoring them in the Kenai Peninsula area. In 2019, she became the Kenai and Kasilof Beluga Monitoring Coordinator for AWA and KPC.
As of the beginning of 2023, Teresa has logged 378 hours of monitoring with AKBMP. As a result of her efforts and contributions by other volunteers and community members, the Kenai monitoring site consistently has the longest number of days monitored in a row during both the spring and fall monitoring seasons. This total does not include a substantial amount of monitoring that she conducts outside of that program; she is often seen in Kenai and Kasilof collecting opportunistic sighting data and providing support for newer beluga monitors. Teresa is well known in the Kenai Peninsula community and has trained many of the AKBMP volunteers who monitor in the Kenai area. She also dedicates tremendous time and energy to engaging with the local community to educate on the endangered beluga population, promote AKBMP, and recruit new volunteers. In her role with AWA, Teresa runs the organization’s beluga text alert system, which sends texts to the public when belugas are sighted in the Kenai River. This system both bolsters public enthusiasm for Cook Inlet belugas and alerts fishers and other recreators on the river of the presence of the imperiled whales so that they can keep an eye out and avoid the whales.
Teresa has also supported NOAA Fisheries’ Cook Inlet beluga eDNA research since its inception, working with KPC professors to collect samples at the Kenai River through every month of the year, and training students on sample collection. This eDNA work is invaluable in providing information about the seasonal presence of both belugas and their prey in the Kenai area. In addition, she is a key contact for AKBMP partner organizations, graduate students, and other researchers engaged in Cook Inlet beluga recovery efforts on the Kenai Peninsula.
A true team player, Teresa credits all of her mentors and collaborators for the success of her work. However, it is Teresa’s passion and dedication to Cook Inlet belugas that inspire recovery partners, students, and the public, and her contributions continue to have a lasting impact on Cook Inlet beluga conservation across the Kenai Peninsula region.
Hawaiian Monk Seal: Hawaiʻi Marine Animal Response
In 2023, we recognized Hawaiʻi Marine Animal Response (HMAR) as a Partner in the Spotlight for expanding and enhancing recovery of Hawaiian monk seals—one of our most imperiled marine species.
HMAR operates on the islands of Oʻahu and Molokaʻi working with Hawaiian monk seals and other marine protected species. Since partnering with NOAA in 2016, their 80+ volunteers, interns, and staff have spent countless hours conducting field responses for Hawaiian monk seals on shore and have deployed team members to the field to provide support activity. HMAR has responded to stranded seals, newborn pups, monitored injured and compromised individuals, helped collect important health and stranding response data, and developed unique education projects for community members.
“We feel honored to be able to take an active role in the recovery of the Hawaiian monk seal population and to be a key NOAA partner in this endeavor,” states Founder & President, Jon Gelman.
Outreach and education are key to HMAR’s work. Their efforts to educate the public in the field are complemented by their work in schools and local events around the islands. Educational programs in schools include the naming of monk seal pups using protocols developed by Hawaiian educators, which creates a strong sense of kuleana (responsibility) within students and teachers for the stewardship of monk seals.
“HMAR has been a wonderful partner for many years. The dedication of HMAR’s staff and volunteers is an inspiration for us at NOAA Fisheries. With all their hard work and long hours watching over seals and working in our communities, HMAR has played a big role in the significant increase we’ve seen in public awareness and support for Hawaiian monk seal conservation,” said Sarah Malloy, Acting Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office.
In 2017, we all got a big surprise when RH58 “Rocky” gave birth to RJ58 “Kaimana” (diamond), the first pup ever born in busy Waikīkī. This was the beginning of adaptive management for Waikīkī pupping. Volunteers and staff of HMAR continue to rise to the challenge of being the boots on the ground, working alongside NOAA and other entities to create a safe environment in this highly trafficked beach area.
“Our team works incredibly hard 12 hours a day, 7 days a week—and it's worth every ounce of effort we put in because we're all so committed to the recovery of this species,” reflects Jon Gelman. “Hawaiian monk seals are special biologically and culturally, and it's a happy day any time we’re able to help even one seal.”
North Atlantic Right Whale: Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Division of Marine Fisheries
As described in the Species in the Spotlight Priority Action Plan for the right whale, NOAA Fisheries encourages states to use their existing regulatory mechanisms to reduce risks from entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Division of Marine Fisheries (MADMF) has led the way in implementing regulations to reduce both entanglement and vessel strike risk for right whales in state waters.
MADMF’s mandatory fishing gear restrictions in state waters seasonally limit participation in commercial fixed gear fisheries that may entangle right whales. They have a number of requirements such as prohibiting setting commercial trap gear in all state waters north and east of Cape Cod, including Cape Cod Bay, from February 1 – May 15; a seasonal gillnet closure in all state waters from January 1 – May 15; modifying fixed gear at times where right whales are rarely present to reduce risk of entanglement; and requiring extensive gear marking to ensure gear is identifiable to Massachusetts fisheries. MADMF is also planning future solutions to further regulate and reduce entanglement risk. In 2022, in partnership with NOAA Fisheries and others, MADMF released a report that comprehensively characterizes the issues and challenges associated with the implementation of on-demand fishing gear in New England lobster fisheries. MADMF also implements mandatory speed limits in Cape Cod Bay (state waters) for most vessels less than 65 feet in length during March and April to protect right whales foraging in the Bay. MADMF has also extended (six out of the nine closure years; e.g., 2021 and 2022) the mandatory protections into the month of May based on the continued presence of right whales in the area.
The regulatory efforts in Massachusetts to reduce the two major threats to right whales are an important complement to NOAA Fisheries’ regulations. We are happy to acknowledge MADMF’s leadership in right whale recovery efforts by recognizing MADMF as our Partner in the Spotlight.
Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtle: Andreas Hero Ohoiulun, WWF Indonesia
Given the precipitous decline of Pacific leatherback sea turtle populations over the past few decades, we take this opportunity to highlight a special partner whose dedicated efforts are working to protect Western Pacific leatherbacks from vanishing.
The Maluku Province in Indonesia hosts two key Pacific leatherback conservation projects. Through the recent efforts of WWF-Indonesia and in particular, the leadership of Andreas Hero Ohoiulun (WWF-Indonesia Project Leader- Inner Banda Arc Sub-Seascape), extraordinary conservation gains for Western Pacific leatherbacks have been achieved.
In the Kei Islands, villages traditionally engage in an annual harvest of adult and juvenile leatherback turtles foraging in nearshore habitats. Despite previous attempts to monitor and mitigate this harvest, a sustained program to do so had not been established. Beginning in 2016, WWF-Indonesia, through the nuanced persistence of Hero Ohoiulun, reached out to the eleven villages of the Kei Islands that participate in the hunt, established collaborations with key village leadership, generated interest and support from Catholic and Protestant church leaders, and ensured cooperation from the District and Provincial Fisheries agencies, to initiate a robust monitoring program that documented 104 leatherbacks harvested during 2017. Recognizing that this level of take is unsustainable, Hero led WWF-Indonesia in developing and initiating a multi-faceted strategy to reduce hunting efforts, which in subsequent years reduced leatherback harvest by approximately 86 percent! Looking towards the future, Hero helped establish the Kei Island Marine Protected Area (MPA) as a major driver for leatherback conservation through a management plan that has local, district and Provincial government commitments. By securing a functioning MPA in Kei, Hero and WWF-Indonesia are ensuring that Indonesian agencies are able to carry on the conservation work that NOAA helped initiate. Reducing the take of leatherbacks and establishing a plan to solidify these initial conservation gains are key components and important successes in the ongoing conservation of this Species in the Spotlight.
Parallel to these efforts, in 2017 Hero and WWF-Indonesia also initiated a local monitoring program on newly identified leatherback nesting beaches on Buru Island. These beaches receive an average of 160 nests per year, but over 60% of nests were either being poached by villagers or eaten by predators, while 3 to 5 nesting females were also being taken each year for local consumption. Village elders report that Buru Island was once a significant nesting area, so much so that historically approximately 150 leatherbacks were harvested annually, which suggests amazing recovery potential exists for the site. Once again, through Hero Ohoiulun’s leadership, WWF-Indonesia coordinated a collaboration between key village leaders and the district and provincial agencies that resulted in the reduction of poached nests to less than 1%, and eliminated the harvest of nesting females completely. This work also involved passing village-level laws prohibiting the take of leatherback eggs and nesting females, the creation of a community based conservation group (aka. Pokmaswas), and the initial steps towards creating an MPA to protect nesting leatherbacks.
These combined efforts at two key projects have formed an important foundation for the continued conservation and recovery of leatherback sea turtles in the Maluku Province, in Indonesia, and in the United States. Many thanks to our Species in the Spotlight hero, aptly named Hero!
Sacramento River Winter-Run Chinook Salmon: Matt Johnson, California Department of Fish and Wildlife
In 2022, winter-run Chinook salmon were reintroduced to the McCloud River for the first time in over 80 years, largely due to the efforts of Matt Johnson and his California Department of Fish and Wildlife colleagues. Matt’s passion for this project and genuine and respectful demeanor helped foster a trustful and effective partnership with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, NOAA Fisheries, and other project partners including the USFWS, U.S. Forest Service, and California Department of Water Resources.
Matt and his team worked tirelessly to turn initial ideas into on-the-ground actions. This involved sacrificing the creature comforts of home to camp along the McCloud River throughout the summer and fall so that the remote incubators containing 40,000 endangered winter-run Chinook salmon eggs were safe from fires, bears, humans, mud, and algae. Some of the feats that Matt and his team accomplished to successfully return winter-run Chinook salmon to the McCloud River include:
- assembling and installing remote site egg incubators without a source of power;
- siting the project components and tending to the fish in ways that were understanding and sensitive to the cultural and spiritual recommendations of tribal co-managers;
- running gravity-fed water lines upstream in the McCloud River for great distances to ensure the incubators had adequate flow to keep the eggs clean and oxygenated;
- delivering eggs from the hatchery to the McCloud River, once by truck many miles on a poorly maintained logging road, and once by helicopter;
- adapting to unforeseen circumstances including mud flows and high densities of rock snot algae (didymo) that inhibited the supply of clean water necessary to keep salmon eggs alive;
- working around the clock to gently clean sediment from the eggs with a turkey feather and scare off bears from the incubation site while doing so; and
- installing, cleaning, and maintaining rotary screw traps and fyke nets to capture juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon and transport them downstream to the Sacramento River.
Quite simply, 2022 was a historic year in the conservation of winter-run Chinook salmon because of Matt’s efforts to protect and recover this species. NOAA Fisheries is very pleased to recognize Matt Johnson as a winter-run Chinook salmon Partner in the Spotlight.
Southern Resident Killer Whale: Quiet Sound, a Program of Washington Maritime Blue
A new program called Quiet Sound aims to better understand and reduce the effects of large commercial vessels on the whales in Washington state. Human-caused underwater noise that affects endangered Southern Resident killer whales comes from a variety of sources. These include recreational boaters, whale watch vessels, and large commercial vessels that transit Puget Sound and the Salish Sea every day. Quiet Sound was developed over several years to help fulfill recommendations of the Southern Resident Orca Task Force assembled by Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Recommendation #22 from their report encouraged collaboration with strategic federal and Washington State partners to support “parallel and adaptive implementation of ECHO and related shipping noise-reduction initiatives while promoting safe, sustainable shipping practices.” ECHO, or Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation, is a similar but more established program led by the Port of Vancouver in British Columbia. Results of noise monitoring studies from the ECHO program have found that reducing the speed of commercial shipping vessels through voluntary slowdown programs can significantly reduce the amount of noise produced by commercial shipping traffic in the surrounding marine environment.
December 2021 marked the official launch of Quiet Sound with Rachel Aronson announced as the Program Director. Initial funding for the program was provided by NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma. NOAA Fisheries participated in development of the program and holds a position on the Leadership Committee. With the framework in place and several active workgroups bringing in many partners, Quiet Sound moved quickly to take action to reduce effects on the whales. They launched five projects in their first year, tackling challenges and data gaps around sighting networks, hydrophone and whale sensing technology, and sound levels in Puget Sound, culminating in a voluntary slow down for commercial vessels.
After review by stakeholders and tribal partners, Quiet Sound finalized guidelines for a trial Seasonal, Voluntary Slowdown Area in Southern Resident critical habitat in Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound. The slow down trial was in effect from October 24, 2022 through January 12, 2023, and overlapped with multiple Southern Resident visits to the area. Slowdown areas were designated zones on the water that covered parts of the shipping lanes in which large commercial vessels were asked to reduce their speed while the trial was underway.
"We’ve been encouraged by the support from the commercial shipping industry, who are interested in seeing whales rebound from current low population levels and are dedicated to being part of the solution,” said Quiet Sound Program Director, Rachel Aronson. “Shippers came to the table very early on to help us craft a slowdown recommendation that is safe and compatible with the realities of the maritime industry."
The program included educating commercial shipping pilots about the slowdown. The program collected baseline data on sound levels when killer whales were present in Puget Sound, both with and without a slowdown. Initial data showed a 70% participation rate with the voluntary slowdown measures during the trial period. As a result, preliminary acoustic data collected from hydrophones in the slowdown area found that conditions were 45% quieter during the trial period. Quiet Sound plans to use these data from the trial to evaluate and improve the design of future slowdowns in 2023.
“Environmental stewardship efforts are becoming the norm for ocean carriers and that will include broad participation in the Quiet Sound slowdown,” said Pacific Merchant Shipping Association Vice President, Captain Mike Moore. “Quiet Sound’s focus on data-driven efforts that truly benefit the Southern Residents will create credibility and enhance participation. We look forward to the results of this first trial and how that will inform future efforts.”
White Abalone: The Bay Foundation
The Bay Foundation (TBF), led by Chief Executive Officer Tom Ford, has been partnering with NOAA on kelp and abalone restoration for nearly two decades in the Southern California Bight, especially Santa Monica Bay. TBF has made major contributions to the white abalone recovery program from 2021-2022. We were particularly lucky to have them as a partner during the pandemic because they were able to establish safe protocols for continued field and laboratory operations in a timely manner. Skilled TBF staff have transported, cared for, tagged, fed, and prepared thousands of white abalone in a well-maintained laboratory environment during the months preceding outplanting of white abalone to native Southern California habitats. TBF’s well-maintained boat and proficient dive team have proven indispensable for monitoring abalone habitat and populations throughout the Southern California Bight, especially along the Palos Verdes Peninsula and California Channel Islands. This accomplishment has led to the selection of new outplant sites, monitoring the status of wild populations of white abalone and collecting genetic samples from them, and assessing wild white abalone as candidates for our broodstock program. In the same vein, outplanting thousands of captive-bred white abalone and tracking their survival would not have been possible without the adept TBF scientists and staff. Finally, TBF spent extensive time re-organizing, re-cataloguing, and performing intensive quality control on a substantial portion of the data collected for this project. Through the guidance of the data manager and other partners, a comprehensive new database structure was created that met NOAA’s needs and standards. While field operations were initially limited due to the pandemic, TBF made significant progress to increase the efficacy of data usability and comprehension. For all of these reasons and more, TBF is the recipient of the Partner in the Spotlight award in 2023. Congratulations!!