Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Day 1: Hiking, Albatross Guts and Monk Seals
by -- January 17th, 2012

The Journey Begins, and we hit the ground running! In our first day on Oahu, we began with a hiking trip to Diamond Head, a visit to Hawaii Pacific University to learn about plastic ingestion in albatross from Dr. Hyrenbach, and a fun filled night with NMFS’s Dr. Charles Littnan and his crew learning about Hawaiian monk seal conservation.

How best to begin a journey than to examine that which you are about the explore?  In this effort, our team began our adventure in Oahu with a hike up to Diamond Head, a famous volcanic caldera known for its incredible views and military history.  Although the trek up the stairs left us weary, the views from the summit were breath-taking and worth the effort to get there. While standing over Waikiki, we marveled at the unique landscape, wildlife and blue oceans that Hawaii offers.
One of the incredible views from the summit of Diamond Head.

One of the incredible views from the summit of Diamond Head.

We were humbled, however, when looking out at Waikiki and seeing the development pressure that has occurred over Oahu.  Through waves of Polynesian and European colonization, much of the native vegetation and birds have vanished and been replaced by invasive species.  Furthermore, as a result of the tourism boom in Hawaii, the development of many resorts (especially in Waikiki) stretch out so far on the beach that they often almost touch the water, again disturbing habitats and wiping out indigenous populations.  While at the summit, Andy gave a brief history lesson on the settling of Oahu and how development has impacted much of the surrounding landscapes.
A view of Waikiki from the summit of Diamond Head. Note the vast development that has occurred due to European settlers and the tourism boom.

A view of Waikiki from the summit of Diamond Head. Note the vast development that has occurred due to European settlers and the tourism boom.

After our descent and a quick lunch at Wahoo Fish Tacos, our team ventured to Hawaii Pacific University Campus to meet with Dr. Hyrenbach, an expert in albatross conservation and marine debris.  Upon arrival, Dr. Hyrenbach gave us a lecture on plastic ingestion by seabirds and described the method of using albatross stomach contents and boluses to gauge where plastic debris occurs in the marine environment.  This involves looking at the influence of both the physical oceanography of the Pacific and the biology/ecology of the birds (feeding mode, distribution, foraging etc.) to find spatial patterns.  By examining the stomach contents of birds at necropsy, we can get a sense of where debris occurs.  This research not only introduced us to the harsh realization that birds swallow the plastic we throw away, but also gives light to the the general problem of marine debris and how it can affect an ecosystem.
Upon conclusion of his lecture, Dr. Hyrenbach and his staff then brought us to his laboratory, where we were able to examine the birds and the contents of their stomachs first hand.  It was amazing to see how bottle caps, plastic spacers and even toy soldiers end up in the birds diet!  While in the lab, our team also helped Dr. Hyrenbach and his staff perform necropsies on three birds!  Despite the smell, we were able to see plastic in the stomach contents and get a true appreciation of the birds.
Our team overlooking the necropsy of a albatross chick.

Our team overlooking the necropsy of a albatross chick.

After our adventure into the stomach of an albatross, we departed for the home of Dr. Charles “Honey Badger” Littnan, Lead Scientist and Supervisory Research Ecologist for the Hawaiian Monk Seal program of the National Marine Fisheries Service at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.  This was one of the people I wanted to meet the most on this trip due to past blog posts, and he certainly did not live down his reputation as both a comedian and conservationist (although I would never want his job due to the criticism he gets everyday).  Along with pizza and beer, Charles and some of his coworkers (Tracy, Sean and Jessie) took us through past and current management decisions and described the process of conserving monk seals.  To do this, Charles and his colleagues created an exercise in which we were the Hawaiian Monk Seal research program in NMFS and were forced to make management decisions when certain threats occurred.
Our team role in the middle of Charlie Littnan's monk seal conservation game.

Our team role in the middle of Charlie Littnan's monk seal conservation game.

The game began in the 1950s, and continued up to monk seal conservation as we know it today.  As we went from era to era, we all began to realize exactly how difficult Charles’ job is, and how hard it is to please all stakeholders in a conservation management decision.  In this exercise, I believe Charles and his team did an excellent job depicting what comes into play when making decisions about how best to manage a population at both the micro and macro level, including funding, stakeholder involvement, natural ecology of the seals, management techniques and more.
Overall, I would say that the NMFS program, even though they have had some problems and in hindsight I don’t agree with every decision, have done a great job trying to manage the population with the resources that they had available to them.  Although the population is still declining, almost a third of the monk seals that are alive today are a result of their efforts – which says a lot about their credibility.

1 Comment

  1. Gabriell Vires
    Jan 19, 2012

    I’m glad to see you’re all having fun so far. Enjoy it and take it in because it seems to fly by! I’m also glad to see the “Honey Badger” tradition has continued on…Poor Charles, I don’t think that nickname is ever going to go away! 🙂

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