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Heading to the High Seas: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey

July 06, 2017

A six-month survey to study whales and dolphins in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

5568x3712-Melon-headed_whales_surfacing_off_Sette_starboard_side-NOAA-PIFSC.jpg Melon-headed whales surface near the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Credit: NOAA Fisheries (Permit #20311)

The Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) departed for a six-month mission to survey whales, dolphins, and seabirds around the Hawaiian Archipelago from July 6 to December 1, 2017. The mission is a collaboration between the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. The first half of the expedition will be aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette and the second half will be on the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker.

Study Area

Our goals are to estimate numbers of whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters, examine their population structures, and better understand their habitats. The extensive study area spans the Hawaiian Archipelago and covers approximately 1.8 million square nautical miles surrounding all the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands out to 200 nautical miles offshore. Waters within this boundary are referred to as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, or "EEZ." 


Visual observers use "big-eye" and hand-held binoculars to search for cetaceans and seabirds from the ship’s flying bridge during daylight hours. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

Research and Technology

There are four major research components: visual observations for cetaceans (including photo-identification, biopsy sampling, and satellite tagging), passive acoustic monitoring (towed hydrophone arrays and other tools), ecosystem assessments (visual surveys for seabirds and measurement of oceanographic variables), and other projects such as aerial photogrammetry using a hexacopter and testing new passive acoustic tools.

The survey will provide data for several management priorities, including:

  1. Cetacean and seabird species inventory, abundance, and habitat information for the recently expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
  2. New abundance estimates for false killer whales in support of the False Killer Whale Take-Reduction Plan, as well as for all cetacean species as required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  3. Updated abundance and distribution data for large whale, sea turtle, and seabird species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
  4. Updated cetacean and seabird assessments used to evaluate whether bycatch rates in U.S. fisheries are sustainable under the MMPA and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Reauthorization Act.

Bottlenose dolphins. Photo: NOAA Fisheries (Permit #20311)


NOAA Fisheries conducted HICEAS in 2002 and 2010. This year, HICEAS launched a new multi-agency plan called Pacific Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species. PacMAPPS is a partnership with NOAA Fisheries, Bureau of Ocean Energy ManagementU.S. Navy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to collect data and produce abundance estimates for species of joint management interest. PacMAPPS includes rotational surveys throughout the Pacific to assess the abundance of cetacean species and their ecosystems.