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Turtle and Seal Biologists Deploy to Papahānaumokuākea for the 2022 Field Season

May 03, 2022

Research to protect threatened and endangered species at field camps in the marine national monument.

This map shows the Hawaiian Archipelago, the range of the Hawaiian monk seal. Within the monument, the English names of the islands are printed in white and the Hawaiian island names are in yellow. Credit: https://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov. This map shows the Hawaiian Archipelago, the range of the Hawaiian monk seal. Within the monument, the English names of the islands are printed in white and the Hawaiian island names are in yellow. Credit: https://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov.

NOAA biologists aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette departed Oʻahu last Thursday for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to study Hawaiian green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals.

Field camps with teams of 3 to 7 biologists will be established at the following five sites: 

  • Lalo (French Frigate Shoals)
  • Kamole (Laysan Island)
  • Kapou (Lisianski Island)
  • Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef)
  • Hōlanikū (Kure Atoll)  

Along the way, the Sette will stop for teams to survey Nihoa, Mokumanamana, and Kuaihelani (Midway Atoll). 

After a short but productive 2021 field season, our 2022 field teams will spend about 4 months on the islands. The Sette will pick them up in August to return to Oʻahu in early September. 

Sea Turtles in a Changing Climate

This year, the Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program will continue to investigate the resilience of the Hawaiian green sea turtle in the face of climate change.

Sex Ratios of Turtle Hatchlings

Our biologists will build upon 2 years of research by collecting tiny samples from hatchling turtles on Tern Island, Lalo. In the fall, our researchers will examine these samples to measure the “primary sex ratio.” The sex of a turtle is influenced by the temperature of the environment around its nest. Therefore, this ratio is incredibly important to understanding how climate variability is changing the sex of these hatchlings over the years. Other populations of green sea turtles are already producing more females than males

Turtle Nesting Adaptations to Habitat Loss

Our turtle researchers also continue to investigate whether Hawaiian green sea turtles are resilient to climate impacts on their nesting habitat. They have tagged ten fertile females in the main Hawaiian Islands to track their nesting migrations. Following the loss of their primary nesting island, East Island, to a storm in 2018, they will use these tags to see where the turtles nest. This annual research will help determine if these female turtles that previously nested on East Island will continue to attempt to lay “all their eggs in one basket” (East Island) or if they will adapt to the loss and lay their eggs on another island in Lalo.

Image
Fertile sea turtle OA143, nicknamed Hiwahiwa (precious), returns to the ocean after biologists attached a satellite tag to her shell to track her migration to her nesting beach. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Camryn Allen (Permit #TE-72088A-3)
Fertile sea turtle OA143, nicknamed Hiwahiwa (precious), returns to the ocean after biologists attached a satellite tag to her shell to track her migration to her nesting beach. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Camryn Allen (Permit #TE-72088A-3)

Hope for Hawaiian Monk Seals

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program is excited to see what the 2022 field season brings. In 2021, we saw the population reach a milestone—growing to more than 1,500 seals rangewide. This means the population has grown on average 2 percent per year since 2013. 

Image
A Hawaiian monk seal and Hawaiian green sea turtle resting on the beach at Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef). Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Sarah Glover (Permit #22677)
A Hawaiian monk seal and Hawaiian green sea turtle resting on the beach at Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef). Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Sarah Glover (Permit #22677)

Saving the Seals

We credit the population’s growth in part to the life-saving interventions that our field research teams perform each year: 

  • They free seals from entanglements in marine debris and entrapments in the decaying Tern Island infrastructure.
  • They treat injuries, rescue malnourished seals, and reunite mother-pup pairs. 
  • They also translocate weaned pups from shark-populated areas. Last year was the first time in decades that our field team did not detect sharks targeting pupping beaches and killing and injuring pups at Lalo. We hope to continue to see a lack of shark predation this year, but will carefully monitor pup survival to be certain.

Predict and Prevent Threats

As we embark on the 40th year of this program, we will be positioned to understand how the species will respond to climate change. We may also detect emerging threats or stressors. Our vaccination program against morbillivirus is now in its sixth year. Having already vaccinated most of the adults in the population, the teams will prioritize weaned pups to maintain immunity throughout the population.

Image
A Hawaiian monk seal pup resting on the beach near a masked booby at Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef). Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Hope Ronco (Permit #16632-02)
A Hawaiian monk seal pup resting on the beach near a masked booby at Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef). Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Hope Ronco (Permit #16632-02)