Small teams of field biologists deploy for two to six months each year to monitor Hawaiian monk seal populations at French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Midway Atoll, and Kure Atoll located in the Papahānaumokuāea Marine National Monument. Field teams measure and tag all weaned seal pups, identify all individuals, conduct beach counts of seals, remove marine debris, and conduct additional scientific and recovery efforts to protect the Hawaiian monk seal population.
Field Deployment and Living Conditions
Prior to departure, teams receive 3–4 weeks of training that includes specialized wilderness first aid instruction. Field teams live in primitive tent camps where all food, water, equipment, and supplies are transported by ship—usually the NOAA Ships Oscar Elton Sette and Hiʻialakai, or chartered vessels. Midway Atoll is accessible by plane and has buildings and more amenities. Strict quarantine procedures are followed when preparing items for deployment to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to make sure that alien pests (insects and seeds) are not introduced to these ecologically and culturally significant areas.
The objectives for all sites include:
- measuring and tagging all weaned seal pups,
- identifying all individuals in each subpopulation via tags, applied bleach marks, and naturally-occurring scars or marks,
- conducting systematic beach counts of seals for trend indices,
- documenting births, deaths, serious injuries, and entanglement in marine debris,
- conducting necropsies on dead seals,
- collecting seal scats (feces) and spews (regurgitate) for diet analysis,
- and collecting and removing marine debris which presents an entanglement threat to Hawaiian monk seals and other wildlife.
Additionally, field teams disentangle seals, reunite separated mother-pup pairs, and conduct other enhancement activities to facilitate population recovery.
Other objectives vary between subpopulations and seasons. For example, at locations where male seal aggression has resulted in severe injuries and even death of females and immature seals, the field teams focus on observing aggressive behavior, identifying the aggressive males, and intervening when appropriate, including treatment of injured seals. At French Frigate Shoals, where seal pups are particularly susceptible to shark attacks, biologists conduct extensive monitoring of shark/seal interactions and translocate newly weaned pups from areas of higher to lower predation risk within the atoll.