Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Midway (Thurs., 1/29/09): Endangered species day
by -- January 30th, 2009

Our last full day features three endangered species found in the reserve…

I awoke this morning to the realization that today was our last full day on Midway.  So I hit the snooze button and laid in bed, listening to the cacophony of the albatross outside my window and making a mental to-do list for the next 48 hours: look for the short-tailed albatross, search for glass balls, visit the museum, snorkel with turtles again, swim at the beach… realizing the list was endless (and the water was cold), I settled on the first three and dragged myself out of bed for breakfast.


Our day began with a bike ride to turtle beach to talk about (what else?) turtles.  By the time we arrived, several green sea turtles were on the beach waiting for us.  Hawaiian green sea turtles are the only population to regularly bask in the sun on the beach, a behavior that helps the turtles maintain a high body temperature and avoid predation in the water.

Turtles Basking on Turtle Beach

Turtles Basking on Turtle Beach

As we began our discussion, a few curious turtles came to check us out along the sea wall.  The abundance of turtles in the Hawaiian Islands is amazing.  Sea turtles share the same history as many other long-lived species: overexploitation, combined with a slow-growth rate and late age at maturity, have severely depleted the population.  Unlike many endangered species, Hawaiian green sea turtles are a success story.  Because overexploitation was the main reason for their decline, the only management action needed to allow the species to recover was the end of harvesting.  In the approximately 30 years that they have been protected by the Endangered Species Act, the population has recovered to sustainable levels.  All this success has led managers to consider removing the Hawaiian population of green sea turtles from endangered species protection.  As we watched these beautiful creatures move through the water, we discussed potential management frameworks for this scenario and pondered the ethical and philosophical implications of de-listing the species.

Monk seals

Switching gears, we meandered over to an adjacent beach that was the site of the monk seal captive care project.  Unlike the turtles, monk seal populations are decreasing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and their recovery is costing millions of dollars.  The very beach we were sitting on was the site of the captive care project, in which newly-weaned seals were kept in pens on the beach and fed a balanced diet of dead fish before they were released into the wild.  The seals were released fat and happy, but never seen again.

Monk Seal

Monk Seal

All this discussion led us straight up until lunch time and into our free afternoon.  We had a little bit of time to look for the short-tailed albatross before lunch, but after much pedaling into a heavy headwind, we only found Laysan and black-footed albatrosses.  Lunchtime brought the news that we had finagled a trip to eastern island tomorrow in exchange for some voluntary manual labor in our free afternoon.  Given the choice between manual labor and free time I generally choose the latter; however, I remembered how grateful Greg has been for our hard work, and I put on some gardening clothes.

Laysan ducks

Our mission was to help restore habitat for the Laysan duck, a cute little bird that has recovered nicely from the brink of extinction and recently been reintroduced to the Midway Atoll.  Their chicks need fresh water to survive, so several small ponds have been created as habitat for them on the island.  Our task was to add sand to the shoreline of one of these ponds so that native plants could be planted in the future.  This meant lots of weeding, shoveling and raking.  After two hours of hard work, the pond looked like a different place, and we were rewarded by the appearance of several ducks walking on their new beach. I can truly say that, although the work is unpleasant, it’s extremely rewarding to be able to see the difference you have made in such a short time.

Once finished with the pond, we were left to our own devices. I headed off to find the museum and search for glass balls, while others attended to their own to-do lists. We convened again to buy souvenirs at the gift shop and eat dinner on the back deck of the Clipper House.

This evening, having conquered everything else on Midway, the only order of business left was to design our ceiling tile for the All Hands Club.  We were lucky enough to talk the Chugach Band into playing for us again, so we headed off for an evening of dancing, singing, and general merriment.

This is the ceiling tile we decorated at the All Hands Club.

This is the ceiling tile we decorated at the All Hands Club.

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