NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.
The Pacific Islands of the United States are very much set apart from other U.S. regions. Not only geographically far away, but unique in their geography, culture, and reliance on the ocean. The actual land mass is relatively small. Made up of the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. But the waters of NOAA Fisheries jurisdiction there, 1.7 million square nautical miles, is roughly equal to every other U.S. regions combined. This is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries. I’m John Sheehan. And today, we’re concluding our series on regional scientific surveys with a look at the waters, islands, atolls, and archipelagos of the U.S. Pacific Islands.
00:00:43:03 (Dr. Mike Seki)
We’re surrounded by a rich diversity of marine life that is vital to our culture and economic stability. We thrive on sustainable seafood, it’s the key to our health and well-being.
00:00:54:02 (John Sheehan)
That’s Doctor Mike Seki, the Director of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. We’ll talk about how the surveys supporting seafood and fishing are central to the Pacific Islands culture and economy.
00:01:06:01 (Dr. Mike Seki)
We also benefit from recreation and commercial fishing industries, which contribute nearly one billion in sales, and ten thousand jobs to our economy.
00:01:13:05 (John Sheehan)
And the challenges of managing marine resources in such a far ranging, and remote part of the globe.
00:01:19:06 (Dr. Mike Seki)
What makes it unique is that we also have the responsibilities for our highly migratory species. These include the Tuna billfish that migrate across thousands of miles, as well as the marine mammals and sea turtles. So, it’s a huge list from a geographical jurisdictional standpoint.
00:01:38:04 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Seki began his career with NOAA Fisheries more than forty years ago, first as a research scientist, and later in executive roles. And all of it in the Pacific Islands. He recently announced his forthcoming retirement. Doctor Mike Seki, welcome to Dive In with NOAA Fisheries. Thanks so much.
00:01:54:06 (Dr. Mike Seki)
Oh, my pleasure, my pleasure.
00:01:57:03 (John Sheehan)
Can you give a sense of how the waters themselves of the Pacific Islands differ from other U.S. coastal waters?
00:02:05:03 (Dr. Mike Seki)
Coastally, along the islands they drop off very, very quickly. So, we don’t have a continental shelf. In some areas, in the Marianas, you know, you go off hundreds of yards and it will drop off hundreds of feet. These are volcanoes that rise off the ocean floor. It’s why you can have off the Big Island of Hawaii high seas migratory species come right up there, and are vulnerable to the boats that want to go and try catching them. But maybe the bigger piece to this is the blue water. Often people don’t realize the vastness of the ocean. For the thousands and thousands of miles the weather is made up by very different physics. The assumption is that you find fish distributed throughout the region equally. But it’s not. They’re very aggregated, they’re very clumped. They tend to go to convergence regions where the food gathers, where the physics converge, or where there is high area of productivity, eddies, and meanders provide unique areas that have shown to support the migration of many of the animals whether they’re fish or protected species across the ocean basin.
But it’s also where these environments are key to management because a lot of our fisheries here then become shared regions for these protected species. And therefore, they become bycatch concerns for some of the fisheries because they’re targeting the same area.
00:03:35:00 (John Sheehan)
Can we talk a little bit about the tools at your disposal? Speaking of the surveys you conduct in order to make your decisions around conservation and management.
00:03:46:02 (Dr. Mike Seki)
We have many different kinds of surveys. A fishery assessment, especially for the large pelagics, they migrate. And so, you need to understand their life history from where they, wherever they are. A lot of them spawn in other parts of the Pacific Ocean. They migrate as juveniles, and they’re harvested at different places. And they all may have different stock boundaries. And so, that poses a challenge in conducting a quote/unquote survey to get the information to understand the stock status. So, we use fishery dependent data, meaning catches. So, we use catch, and we use effort for those who go and catch them to come up with a standardized metric that we use in our assessments for many of these species. In some of our more coastal waters it’s a little more challenging ‘cause so many of the species are very cryptic.
It’s a very skilled fishery. So, you find some of the older fishers on smaller boats. They go through generations of learning the art of how to harvest some of these resources. So, what we have done for, like, our insular species, our commercially valuable bottom fish fisheries here, we partner with the industry. We go out there, and they conduct the actual directed fishing. And that’s worked really, really well. So much so that in, when the first year the COVID pandemic, when it used to be partially conducted off NOAA ships, we couldn’t do it because we were all taken offline. But the fishers were able to go and carry it out. So, throughout COVID, we never lost a survey in those years. The fishers were able to go out there, conduct the survey, and we still got the data.
00:05:32:02 (John Sheehan)
Just a quick note here. I found this really impressive. During COVID, some science centers couldn’t field any surveys. But because Doctor Seki and his science center already had this community partnership in place, that let them accomplish it.
00:05:46:00 (Dr. Mike Seki)
For our protected species, a lot of it is doing surveys for the marine mammal populations. And there’s still the traditional visual surveys. But we’ve invested over time to use passive acoustics. And when I say passive acoustics, this is just ambient noise. We made the investment to monitor this noise with towed arrays of these acoustic sensors. Sensors can be sitting on drifting buoys. We had them moored so, they’re out there all over the Pacific. And so, the big investment from the science side is to convert these acoustic signatures to quantitative numbers. And that becomes your holy grail where now you’ll have eyes in the water. Monk Seals safe in the chair of protected species out here, gravely endangered. We put out teams out into the primary breeding grounds, which is the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, to actually go out there every year to actually do the counts, to do some recovery aspects, to monitor the general health of the population.
00:06:47:08 (John Sheehan)
One more thing. We’ll hear about Monk Seals and the Science Center’s conservation efforts a little later in the show. Stick around.
00:06:54:06 (Dr. Mike Seki)
Coral reefs, so we do coral reef surveys. When we had more access to ship time, we would rotate where we did Hawaii one year, we would do the Marianas one year, we’d send the ships to American Samoa one year. And so, they would kind of divide up the Pacific and do those every three or four years. As it became harder and harder to do that, we kind of scaled back. But we’ve been doing it for fifteen years. So, we have a very good baseline. We have oceanographers, we have divers, we have benthic teams. And so, it was a very comprehensive surveys of the coral reefs of where they went out. The model being that we could look at reefs in Samoa, reefs in the Marianas, reefs in Hawaii. And how are they functioning comparably? We have high seas surveys that we go out there to do oceanographic work. We use that a lot to kind of look at understanding how the ocean functions along with where the animals are. So, we look at how the animals use the ocean as well as how the food webs are structured.
And then we have the socio-economic surveys. When COVID came in we had them out there looking at the impacts due to COVID. Prior to that you look at how the various communities are impacted by decisions that managers make, or how there’s a reliance on the resources because they’re all different. They’re different for each of these areas. So, many surveys. You know, data becomes the basis for all that we do on the science side. Surveys are really the fundamental means by which we get it. Whether it’s a survey we conduct on a white ship, or that they’re surveys by our folks going out there and reaching out whether they’re down at the fish auction watching what comes in, or whether they’re doing it by mail, or whatever it is. These surveys are fundamental to what we do.
00:08:39:02 (John Sheehan)
Yeah. And they sound, in many cases, to be so collaborative whether in cases working with community members and fishermen, or as you say citizen scientists.
00:08:48:08 (Dr. Mike Seki)
They have to be, you know, and it goes beyond, I mean, what I’ve just said. You know, even for some of our life history work. So, we need then the full range of understanding each of the animals, the size at maturity, how much they’re reproducing. And often you can’t get your hands on all the specimens you need within, you know, with the structure of a given animal’s life history. So, we rely on these partnerships, rely on these folks to get; Oh, they got a strange size fish, they got a very large fish, or you get you know, whatever it is. We’ve built that relationship. So, it’s been really good. It works all around.
00:09:26:04 (John Sheehan)
Can we talk a little bit more about how the science center interacts with Indigenous populations? What are some other ways that you interact with communities outside of surveys?
00:09:37:05 (Dr. Mike Seki)
The Native Hawaiian and Indigenous People throughout the Pacific Islands, they rely on the ocean for physical and spiritual nourishment. The traditional practice of fishing connects the local communities to the natural world through a reciprocal relationship where caring for the environment allows the environment to sustain the community. We work with these communities in the Pacific to understand the traditional practices of sustainable harvest, conservation management, and the role that fishing plays in these cultures. The Science Center conducts Oral History Interviews of elder fishermen in America Samoa to document traditional knowledge of marine use and resource management. We’re also working to understand, improve our understanding of the culture dimension of marine seascapes.
So, we have a project identified that identifies differences in not only in the Pacific marine taxa, emphasizing NOAA management documents. And those emphasizing foundational Hawaiian text, but also a difference in the management domains and cultural heritage domains that those taxa represent. We’re developing this into a more robust line of research to bridge Indigenous and non-Indigenous paradigms to strengthen the management.
00:10:53:03 (John Sheehan)
And finally, you recently announced that you are retiring after more than forty years here at NOAA Fisheries. So, first, congratulations. That’s amazing. And I’m wondering what takeaways you have after such a long career in the region?
00:11:12:01 (Dr. Mike Seki)
You know, thank you first. It seems like an eternity, but it’s gone by so fast. And when I started, so, I started really back in 1979. And in my first trip in 1980, I was up in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and we were doing some exploratory surveys. We did exploratory fishing surveys back then. There were no, really no commercial fisheries there. But we were up there, and Monk Seals were obviously there. And we’d go on the beaches. And they were quite pristine. I think the one striking thing I took away over the forty years, the amount of debris that now litters those islands on orders of magnitudes, tens of orders of magnitude over what it was when I first started going up there. And that is one of the saddest things that I have seen over the course of my work with NOAA.
00:12:07:08 (John Sheehan)
Yeah, I’ve seen some of these photographs. And not having a frame of reference for what they used to look like, they, they’re scattered. There’s just plastic debris everywhere.
00:12:19:05 (Dr. Mike Seki)
And you know, a lot of these debris, they take decades to wash in, or to be kind of to land onto the beaches. So, the amount of debris in the ocean, and they’re all breaking down into microplastics, should be a really big concern. I think it’s going to be a pretty big issue, it’s already a big issue. But it will become even more of one in the years to come.
00:12:43:02 (John Sheehan)
Well, with retirement, you know, you already live in Hawaii, where do you go now? Are you going to pull a one eighty and move to New Jersey?
00:12:55:06 (Dr. Mike Seki)
No, I’ll be gone. That’s the other unique thing, you know. You find many people spend their entire career in one place. And so, all my forty years I’ve been here. I don’t plan to go anywhere. I have children. And they’ve kind of moved out, but even they want to come back. So, I’ve been around and there are not many other places that I’ve come across that I’d rather live in. So, I’ll be here.
00:13:20:03 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Mike Seki, thanks so much.
00:13:21:09 (Dr. Mike Seki)
Oh, my pleasure. Great talking.
00:13:24:00 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Mike Seki is the Director of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.
00:13:34:08 (Monk Seal vocalizations)
00:13:43:05 (John Sheehan)
What you’re hearing are the vocalizations of Monk Seals recorded on a hydrophone. That weird snapping and crackling sound is actually shrimp. Monk Seals are and endangered species and one that NOAA Fisheries takes great care in trying to rebuild and protect. In fact, thanks to conservation efforts, the Monk Seal population exceeded fifteen hundred last year. The first time in two decades.
00:14:08:02 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
Monk Seals are the world’s only living tropical pinniped. They live exclusively in Hawaiian waters from the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands that are part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument all the way down to the populated high islands.
00:14:24:03 (John Sheehan)
That’s my next guest, Doctor Michelle Barbieri, the leader of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program at the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center. I wanted to learn a little more about how the science center protects and tracks Monk Seals, especially considering that the majority of them live on a small, sparse islands of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, hundreds, and hundreds of miles from the main Hawaiian Islands. Doctor Michelle Barbieri, welcome to Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.
00:14:52:09 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
Thank you so much for having me.
00:14:54:09 (John Sheehan)
Let’s talk about Monk Seals. Why are they so endangered? Where are the big threats?
00:15:00:03 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
There are a variety of different threats to the species. And some of those differ geographically as well. Seals in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands primarily reside in Papahanaumokuakea. They are facing a multitude of threats including food limitation, which impacts survival of juveniles to reach adulthood. That’s really important for an endangered species because you need those adult animals to be the breeding population to sustain the species. They also get entangled in marine debris and drown. They also suffer from shark predation in a very specific part of the island chain, that’s Lalo French Frigate Shoals. And it’s an unfortunate reality that impacts about twenty five percent of the pup cohort every year. They face a variety of other threats there that include aggression between seals, seals that get separated from their moms, or suffer from wounds.
And when we’re there doing our work, we’re not just surveying the population, but we’re actually doing a lot of real hands on conservation intervention to target these threats. Down in the main Hawaiian Islands, threats are a little bit different. They tend to be more anthropogenic in nature. So, those are things like, unfortunately fisheries interactions whether with hooks and line, or with nets, intentional killings, and also disease. And the leading disease is toxoplasmosis, which is a disease that a lot of animals can get. But it affects Monk Seals as well. Surprisingly enough caused by a parasite that’s shed in the feces of cats. So, that parasite makes its way to the ocean, and can infect and kill Monk Seals.
00:16:41:03 (John Sheehan)
And what are some of the ways that you combat these threats?
00:16:44:07 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
We’re really hands on. In the northwestern Hawaiian Islands our field teams, when they’re there are trained to disentangle seals from marine debris. They are trained to intervene in terms of translocating Monk Seals from areas, for example, of high shark predation risk, or entrapment, to places where they’re safer. There are some places in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands where there are pieces of infrastructure from many, many years ago where that infrastructure is no longer being maintained and is kind of falling apart, and kind of creates these tricky situations for Monk Seals to get in and out of. So, our teams can intervene to free animals from those, those threats. They can reunite mom and pup pairs that get separated, do things like intervene for seals that have wounds, or traumatic interactions whether it’s from another seal or something else. We train them to lance abscesses. We train them to give antibiotic injections.
We also have a vaccination program, which is more in a preventative sense. But our field teams are also vaccinating Monk Seals during the course of their activities. One of the really cool things that we’re able to do now more than ever is partner with the marine mammal center. They have a facility in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Island that’s called Ke Kai Ola. And they are able to rehabilitate malnourished seals that are suffering from food limitation. When we’re there on our NOAA ships to deploy and recover our field camps that are doing all this work, we’re able to bring seals that are malnourished on board the ship, triage, provide medical care, and then transport them down to Ke Kai Ola where they can work their magic and get those animals fattened up and ready to be returned back to the population.
00:18:31:08 (John Sheehan)
Yeah, you are also a veterinarian. So, you work on these seals.
00:18:36:05 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
Yes, I spend a fair bit of time on the ship giving seals the hydration they need, the calories that they need. We get that started by tube feedings. We do some preliminary health assessments on them and just do everything we can to give them the supportive care that they need until they get to the full-fledged hospital. As a veterinarian, I’m really involved in a lot of the interventions we do here in the main Hawaiian Islands such as removing hooks that seals might ingest that are life threatening. And unfortunately, whenever we need to do a necropsy, we’re really involved in terms of using necropsies and carcasses as the opportunity to better understand why animals die, what the threats are, and characterize those. Toxoplasmosis typically results in seals that we find dead. We have, on rare occasions, had the opportunity to treat those animals. We haven’t been successful yet. Our partners at Ke Kai Ola are working tightly with us to try to make some movement on that. But that is a really challenging one, clinically.
00:19:37:04 (John Sheehan)
And how is, how is the recovery going for Monk Seals? Is the population seeing any growth?
00:19:44:03 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
We are seeing the payoffs of a lot of the interventions that we’re doing. And that is to say that since 2013 the population has been growing on average at about two percent per year range wide. So, that’s really exciting news. We did a study a few years back where we looked at the impact directly of those interventions. And about twenty-five to thirty percent of the population that’s around today is around because they are a result of seals that benefitted from interventions that saved their lives, or they’re the offspring of adult females who did. So, it feels really good to be able to say that we feel that we’re making a difference. We are moving the needle for this endangered species. It still takes a lot of work, and we have a whole lot of work yet to do, especially as we’re looking into the face of climate change and a lot of other things.
00:20:38:08 (John Sheehan)
Yeah. Let’s talk about the survey itself and what it takes to actually get you and your colleagues out to the Monk Seals. And lets start with sort of description of the northwestern islands. Because they’re very sparse, and there’s not a lot on them. It’s kind of hard to picture. I tried looking them up on Google Maps and couldn’t even see them.
00:21:01:09 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
You’re right. And there are a few that are much taller and narrower. So, those are islands like Nihoa and Mokumanamana. They have very little sandy beach, but they are still a habitat for seals. But yeah, you’re right. The vast majority of the islands there are low-lying, sandy islands and atolls. So, in many places all that’s left is just one sandy island. And one of them has a lake in the middle. They’re all a little bit different. So, some of them might only take you two or three minutes to walk the perimeter. Others are seven miles around. So, they’re quite variable in size and shape. And they’re quite ephemeral in terms of year-to-year variation as well. But they are beautiful places with rich wildlife and there’s a lot of effort across agencies and partners to restore these islands to their natural state, reintroduce species that have been extirpated, restore habitats and plants, native plants. And also try to rid them of some of the other impacts and threats of civilization over time.
00:22:13:00 (John Sheehan)
And so, logistically how do you, how do you get out there? And what are you, you’re setting up camps on sometimes big, sometimes small islands?
00:22:22:06 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
Yes. We’re setting up camps. We typically go out in the springtime. We’ll be sailing on the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette. That is a ship that’s a little over two hundred feet long. Our teams are eighteen people in size, give or take each year. And we put everything that they need to spend a summer on a remote island on that ship and get that out to their island every single year. And then at the end of the field season, we do the entire thing in reverse. And we’ll pick everything up; pick up all of our teams and bring them back to Honolulu. So, it takes a lot of work. We will take, for example, several pallet tubs to each individual island full of gear. Those get craned from the ship onto a small boat. The small boat takes them through the shallows to shore. And then we are all on shore pulling the items out of the pallet tub lid, stocking them on the beach, pulling the pallet tub out, putting that on the beach, and then putting everything back in the pallet tub.
We’d carry, hand carry water jugs for their entire water needs for an entire summer.
00:23:30:08 (John Sheehan)
That’s so much!
00:23:32:02 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
We get a good workout.
00:23:33:04 (John Sheehan)
That’s so much stuff. Oh, wow. And does the team then stay there, and the boat pulls away and like, Well, see you at the end of summer.
00:23:40:03 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
That’s exactly what happens. The ship will pull away, and we wave goodbye, and our communications with them for the rest of the season will be over satellite phone, and inReach, and then a lot of email. But it’s not the email that we’re all used to having. It’s not that they have access to the internet. It’s very basic satellite email that can’t send big files or anything like that. So, they’re pretty remote. And a lot of them really love it. And we also really like it when we’re out there as well. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about my job is being able to disconnect, unplug, really focus on what we’re there to do, what our mission is, and just be in such a beautiful, special place that has such importance in terms of the ecosystem and also culturally.
00:24:26:09 (John Sheehan)
And so, what does a day in this survey like? Wake up in camp and go start counting seals?
00:24:36:09 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
In the morning, yeah. The teams are set up with each person has an individual personal tent. There’s also an office tent, and a kitchen tent. So, they get their days started just like a lot of the rest of us do, just in a beautiful, remote place getting ready to go out and do a seal survey for the day. The surveys that they do are focused primarily on population assessments. So, that means identifying seals, counting seals, documenting their individual markings that are distinctive, documenting tags that they have. And then most important thing is to get those pups that newly weaned tagged. So, they keep track of which pup matched up with which mom, and try to get flipper tags into that pup, and keep track of whose who so that we know over time how those animals survive throughout their life. And one of the most important metrics for looking at the population is survival of these juveniles to adulthood. And that is one of the things that we’re, we’re really closely tracking every single year.
00:25:38:01 (John Sheehan)
So, you participate in these surveys to the degree of going out and helping your colleagues unload the boats and prepare the campsites. But you haven’t spent a season out there. What do your colleagues tell you about what they do, and you know, a few weeks in and haven’t seen anybody in a while.
00:25:56:07 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
Yeah. Yeah, that’s a great question. Everybody looks at is as a different type of opportunity to maybe learn to play an instrument because there aren’t that many people out there to hear you learning, definitely a lot of reading. I love catching up with everyone at the end of the field season and getting book recommendations. It’s fantastic. There are also some really artistic people on these teams, and they create amazing works of art whether it be through painting, or other media, sometimes even using debris and trash that they pick up from the beaches. Yeah, it is for sure something that we think about in terms of how we assign people to different islands as well because the camps in some places may be as small as just two people for three to five months straight without really any visitors. So, they need a lot of stuff to keep them occupied. But we certainly do keep them busy with work as well.
00:26:54:04 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Michelle Barbieri, thanks so much.
00:26:56:00 (Dr. Michelle Barbieri)
Thank you, John. It’s been a pleasure.
00:26:59:06 (John Sheehan)
Doctor Michelle Barbieri is the leader of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program at the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center. As I mentioned at the top of the interview, the Monk Seal population exceeded fifteen hundred in 2021. And while this is definitely good news, the recovery is fragile, and challenges remain. You can read all about it at our website, fisheries.noaa.gov. And while you’re there, check out the rest of our series on regional science centers and the surveys that are foundational to their work. Each U.S. region from Alaska to the West Coast, to the North, Southeast, out to the Pacific Islands. They’re all unique and fascinating. It’s worth a listen. I’m John Sheehan and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.
00:27:46:09 (Podcast ends)