Day Three (Jan. 20) – An Agency Filled Afternoon

After a fish-filled morning, we ventured from the tuna auction over to the NOAA offices to meet with a line-up of wonderful people!

After a fish-filled morning, we ventured from the tuna auction over to the NOAA offices to meet with a line-up of wonderful people.  I must preface this blog by saying that everyone we met with in the PIRO (Pacific Islands Regional Office) office was absolutely wonderful and informative!  They spoke to us about many of the different measures NOAA is taking to deal with marine resources from reducing false killer whale takes in longline fisheries, to potentially listing 82 species of coral, to incorporating climate change impacts into protected species management plans.  Several of them are Duke Alumni and, having been in our shoes, spoke a little about how they got where they are today.  For that, I cannot thank them enough.

The badges we all got to wear!
The badges we all got to wear!

After a yummy lunch of an amazing tofu salad and edamame, we met with Charles “Honey Badger” Littnan to discuss the plight of monk sealsin both the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) and the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI).  This was the person that I was the most interested in talking to and listening to today; mainly due to the fact that Galapagos Sharks off of French Frigate Shoals are sometimes removed (i.e. killed) to prevent predation on newly born monk seal pups.  When I learned about this predator reduction in my marine mammal class, I was utterly appalled and quite heated.  Although I did some additional research, I still didn’t fully understand the intricacies of the framework with which NOAA could do this and was looking forward to hearing what Charles had to say about it.

I must admit that Charles is one funny and entertaining person to listen too.  He really knows what he’s talking about and genuinely thinks about every aspect involved when making decisions or taking action.  With that said, I commend him—I certainly don’t want his job!  Charles enlightened the class not only about the difficulties about being in charge of monk seal research, but also to the next steps that they could potentially take to save these marine mammals. We had a lengthy discussion during break about monk seal poop and its contents. It was definitely, er, interesting to say the least.  I was quite happy to hear that he didn’t particularly like eradicating “problem” Galapagos sharks and that research was being conducted to determine whether this predation was an overall population issue or just a subset of the population.  While I don’t like the idea that sharks are being killed, it’s comforting in a sense to know that research is being done and sharks aren’t being killed unjustly.

He also told us a little bit about the next potential steps NOAA is taking to ensure that the monk seal populations don’t go extinct.  One of these was potential translocation.  An important thing to note is that there are monk seals in the NWHI (~950 individuals) and in the MHI (~160).  Monk seals in the NWHI are declining 4% annually while monk seals in the MHI are increasing 7% annually and the first two-three years of their life is crucial to survival.  Essentially what would happen is weaned monk seal pups would be moved from NWHI to MHI for the first three years of their life to get “fat and happy” before being potentially moved back to NWHI.  Sounds great in theory but we’ll just have to see how it goes when implemented.

Yum. Yum. Yum.
Yum. Yum. Yum.

After Charles’ talk, we thanked him and parted ways back to U of H.  After a tasty dinner of a falafel pita with hummus and a Greek salad, we ended the night with yummy Yogurtland.  Is anyone else noticing a habit forming???  It’s a good thing we head off to Midway tomorrow afternoon!  It is definitely thrilling and exciting to finally be heading to Midway.  With that I will bid you adieu until Midway!

9 thoughts on “Day Three (Jan. 20) – An Agency Filled Afternoon

  1. Hey Guys. Thanks for the generous write up and for not falling asleep in my talk. It was a great dialog so thank you for the opportunity. Anyway. Have a great trip up to Midway. If you are interested in following more science updates on monk seals you can always friend our page on Facebook. Look for Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. You can also ask questions! Travel safe.

    P.S. I can’t believe you snuck in honey badger.

  2. So… if the monk seals continue to die off in the NWHI and they are thriving in the MHI then why…. why move the monks back to NWHI where they will continue to die off? Is it not ok to have a 5000 monk seal population in the MHI and let nature takes it course… or is it us humans who decide how nature solves this problem?

    And one final question is what if we just let nature takes its course and the monk seals go extinct? If they go extinct in a place with basically no human impact then isn’t that just nature doing its thing? Who said we get to play god with monk seals?

    I would be interested in the class’s perspective on this one. And having met Charles I know he is in a tough spot to reverse nature singlehandedly.


    1. Tom:

      Those are some of the questions we’ll be pondering – so we will post responses over the next few days.

      One thing I wonder about, though, is why monk seals in the NWHI are faring so poorly now, after complete protection, given that they have persisted for many thousands of years in the past. Are there still echoes of human interventions in the way the current NWHI ecosystem functions?

      1. Andy
        That would be an interesting discussion about the whole area of endangered species. So what do you think Andy with all your marine mammal experience????


        1. Tom:

          Well, I can’t say. I was part of a review of the monk seal translocation program on behalf of the Society for Conservation Biology last week and our report has not yet been released.

          How’s that for dodging the question?


          1. Andy,

            I think it (the translocation) is the crux of actual conservation management but not of wildlife management which NOAA leads. NOAA has people, special interest, industry, environmentalsts and critters as part of their mission. While NOAA has the “federal responsibility” we do not exactly have to follow their lead. I agree if they are writing checks to the people who do the work then those people are compromised in their positions.

            NOAA can translocate but we do not have to agree with it or even support it.

            I am not busting on NOAA rather just trying to get to the “truth” on travslocation rather than special interest policy stuff that helps people cope more than Monk Seals with their dropping population.

            How’s the weather out there?

          2. Tom:

            The weather is gorgeous – we went snorkeling this morning and I think the water was the warmest ever.

            OK, to monk seals. Here are three options:

            1. Do nothing and let the monk seal sub-population in the MHI grow and the sub-population in the NWHI dwindle.

            2. Translocate weaned pups from the NWHI (where they will probably die) to the MHI, where they will probably thrive. This will increase the numbers in the MHI, thus helping to conserve the population, but increase conflicts between seals and people.

            3. The NMFS two-stage translocation program. This will allow pups to survive and, if successful, help to delay the population crash in the NWHI (hopefully until conditions improve there).

            Which one would you choose?


  3. I have to say, while I usually side with the sharks, I can see why eradication would be necessary in this instance. Though, what I would rather do is study why they have changed their behavior to come close to shore and feed on monk seal pups. Especially since the entire population isn’t engaging in this behavior, only a few individuals are, I am curious as to why. Charles mentioned that perhaps the closed off lobster fishery removed a source of food for the sharks, who used to prey on chum from the boats. The fishery was closed in 1992 and this behavior began in 1993. Hmm, is there a possability for a job opening here?

    The falafel sandwiches were DELICIOUS! I requested yogurtland because one trip wasn’t enough. I hope there is one where I move to!

  4. Well, I have to say this was very informative and interesting. Great job Gabriell!!

    Sounds like everyone is having a great time. Next time maybe you’ll go to Alaska, bet there’s no tofu there! xoxoxoxo mom

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