UH Hilo, UH Manoa Undergrads Team Awarded for Hawaiian Coral Reefs VR App

A team of undergraduate students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Computer Science Department and the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa College of Engineering was recently awarded with the Best Visualization Showcase Award for the upcoming 2020 Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing (PEARC) Conference for its work on integrating three-dimensional models of Hawaiian coral reefs into an immersive virtual reality platform.

A screen capture of the home module of the Coral Reef VR software

“Exploration of Coral Reefs in Hawaiʻi through Virtual Reality: Hawaiian Coral Reef Museum VR” showcases models that were generated from high-resolution surveys at long-term monitoring sites throughout the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Thousands of images of coral reef habitats were collected by UH Hilo Assistant Professor of Marine Science Dr. John Burns and his research team during ship-based research expeditions led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The images were then processed by the UH Hilo Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab using structure-from-motion photogrammetry technology to create high-resolution 3D reconstructions of each coral reef study plot. These models form the foundation of the immersive virtual reality experience.

“One of the primary objectives was to create virtual outreach products to showcase these incredible and unique products to public audiences around the globe,” said Francis Cristobal, UH Hilo Faculty Specialist, Computer Science, who spearheaded the two-year project.

“When the application starts, the user is brought into a Coral Reef Museum filled with a curated selection of coral reefs. The user then picks a reef to explore and is transported to a life-sized 3D model of it,” Cristobal explained. “From there, the user can resize, reposition or fly through a 3D model, offering a wide range of interactivity. This human-centered design is particularly an effective platform for researchers, instructors, and the general public.”

These reconstructions also allow researchers to examine how the coral reefs change over time and respond to stressors associated with climate change.

“The models provide an excellent public outreach tool as audiences can get a first-hand realistic view of what these isolated and protected coral reefs look like,” Cristobal said.

Team members include:

• Briana Noll, UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
• Nickolas Rosenberg UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
• Drew Gotshalk, UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
• Alec Goodson, UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
• Kailey Pascoe, UH Hilo MEGA lab
• Alexandra Runyan, UH Hilo Marine Science
• Michael Dodge II, UH Manoa 4th year, Electrical Engineering
• Jared McLean-UH CyberInfrastructure
• Ryan Theriot, UH Manoa LAVA
• John Burns, UH Hilo Marine Science and MEGA
• Joseph Sanchez, UH Hilo Edwin Mookini Library
• Francis Cristobal, UH Hilo Computer Science

The project is a collaboration of UH Hilo Computer Science, the UH Hilo Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab, UH Manoa Laboratory of Advanced Visualization and Applications (LAVA), `Ike Wai Data Science initiative, and the UH Hilo Edwin Mookini Library. The project was funded by UH System Academy of Creative Media.

The virtual museum will be showcased at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo, Hawaiʻi and will be a travelling exhibit. It will also be presented at the Hawaiʻi State Legislature.

The PEARC20 takes place online July 26 – 30, 2020 and will explore the current concepts of advanced research computing including modeling, simulation, and data-intensive computing.

OHA Named Co-Trustee of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Gov. David Ige, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and the U.S. Secretaries of Interior and Commerce have signed an updated Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) adding OHA as a co-trustee of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It is the largest, contiguous, fully protected conservation area in the U.S. and encompasses 583,000 square miles of ocean waters, including ten islands and atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

With the signing of the updated MOA, co-trustee agencies are: the Commerce Department (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration); the Interior Department (Fish and Wildlife Service); the State of Hawai‘i Land and Natural Resources Department (DLNR) and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“Honoring, respecting and perpetuating the Native Hawaiian culture and sustainability are among my administration’s top priorities. OHA has participated in the decision making process since the monument was first designated by President Bush more than ten years ago, and previously, when the area was managed as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. The monument is world renowned for both its natural and cultural attributes and OHA’s co-trustee role will ensure the protection of Native Hawaiian cultural features and provide a critical cultural sensitivity to every decision that is made to protect this unique place,” said Gov. David Ige.

“We fully support and embrace OHA as a co-trustee of the monument. It is impossible to separate decisions about nature from cultural considerations. OHA’s elevated voice and input will inform management actions on a broad scale,” said DLNR Chair Suzanne Case.

OHA has been one of seven collaborating agencies for Papahānaumokuākea, including NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and National Marine Fisheries Service; the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services and Refuges, and the DLNR Divisions of Aquatic Resources and Forestry and Wildlife.

Papahānaumokuākea is rich in history and cultural significance. In 2010, UNESCO inscribed the area as our nation’s first mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site.

“The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is of great cultural significance to the Native Hawaiian community and houses important marine ecosystems that the Department of Commerce is committed to protecting for future generations,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. “Over the past 10 years, we have forged a strong partnership with the State of Hawai‘i and we look forward to collaborating with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on our continued efforts to preserve this unique environment.”

“The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are home to one of the most diverse and threatened ecosystems on the planet and a sacred place for the Native Hawaiian community,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “By including OHA as a co-trustee for Papahānaumokuākea, we are highlighting not only the protection of natural treasures like the pristine coral reefs and deep sea marine habitats, but also the significant cultural and historic resources of the area that will be preserved for current and future generations.”

“We thank President Barack Obama and our partners and supporters for making this a reality. Since our community’s first involvement in the management of these kūpuna island more than a decade ago, the goal has been to get Native Hawaiians a seat at the decision-making table. We understand the challenges ahead and are firmly committed to fulfilling our kuleana to this place and our beneficiaries,” said OHA Chair Rowena Akana.

“This historic action rightfully places the Native Hawaiian voice at the highest levels of decision making for this culturally and spiritually significant wahi pana (sacred place) and will help advance our people’s understanding of the deep connection of our entire paeʻaina (archipelago).  We look forward to serving in our new role, in partnership with our co-trustees, to develop and implement a resource management structure that integrates the best of conventional science and traditional practices. We hope that Papahānaumokuākea will demonstrate to the world that integrating science and indigenous knowledge is the best management model to sustain our fragile global environment,” said Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, OHA’s chief executive officer.

OHA is a constitutionally established body, set as a separate state entity independent of the executive branch of the State of Hawai‘i. Its primary responsibility is representing the interests of the Native Hawaiian community, including in the monument, through the perpetuation of Hawaiian cultural resources. This includes the customary and traditional rights and practices of Native Hawaiians that are exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes under the Hawai‘i Constitution.

President Barack Obama Announces the Expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

Today, President Barack Obama announced the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) by more than 442,000 square miles.  U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), who formally proposed the PMNM expansion in a letter to the president in June, applauded the decision. This action will create the world’s largest marine protected area by putting some of the world’s most important ocean ecosystems under conservation.

new area
“This is one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans,” said Senator Schatz. “Expanding Papahanaumokuakea will replenish stocks of ‘ahi, promote biodiversity, fight climate change, and give a greater voice to Native Hawaiians in managing this resource.  President Obama’s declaration is only the beginning.  To create continued success, we will need to follow through with management, research, educational opportunities, and enforcement.  This declaration sets us on a strong path forward for our irreplaceable environment and the generations to come.”

At 582,578 square miles, the declaration creates the world’s largest marine protected area by expanding the PMNM west of 163° West Longitude out to the full 200 nautical miles of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, while preserving access for local fishermen on Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau by maintaining the current boundaries of the PMNM east of 163° West Longitude.  President Obama will also grant Schatz’s request to make the Office of Hawaiian Affairs a Co-Trustee of the PMNM.

Hawaii Governor Signs Letter of Support for Expansion of Papahānaumokuakea Marine National Monument

Gov. David Ige sent a letter to President Barack Obama conveying his support for the expansion of the Papahānaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Click to read letter

Click to read letter

The letter was signed and transmitted on the evening of Aug. 24.

First Known Table Coral Discovered Off Oahu

NOAA scientists report the discovery of the first known colony of table coral off of the south shore of O’ahu in Hawai’i.  A report on the discovery was published last month in the Bulletin of Marine Science.

Table coral of genus Acropora (Acroporidae) at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Table coral of genus Acropora (Acroporidae) at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Given its common name due to its flat-topped, table-like shape, table coral (Acropora cytherea) is one of the primary reef-building corals throughout most of the tropical Pacific, but it has never been observed in waters off O’ahu — until now, researchers said. The coral, estimated to be 14 years old, was found at a depth of 60 feet during a training dive.

“This discovery represents a significant contribution to the diversity of O’ahu reefs,” said Daniel Wagner, Ph.D., NOAA research specialist with Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. “Hawai’i may be in the process of being colonized by table coral from Johnston Atoll or other neighboring tropical archipelagos.”

Table coral is abundant at Johnston Atoll, 800 miles southeast of Honolulu. However, it is rare in Hawai’i, where its distribution is limited to French Frigate Shoals and neighboring atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The coral colony was discovered by scientists last November during survey dives using closed-circuit rebreathers off the south shore of O’ahu. Rebreathers recycle the gases that divers breathe, removing carbon dioxide and actively managing oxygen levels, thereby allowing for extended dive times and more efficient decompression at depths not accessible using conventional SCUBA.



World’s Oldest Known Wild Bird Hatches Another Chick

A  Laysan albatross known as “Wisdom” – believed to be at least 62 years old – has hatched a chick on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge for the sixth consecutive year. Early Sunday morning, February 3, 2013, the chick was observed  pecking its way into the world by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Pete Leary, who said the chick appears healthy. Wisdom was first banded in 1956, when she was incubating an egg in the same area of the refuge. She was at least five years old at the time.

Wisdom and her chick

Wisdom and her chick.  Photo Credit: J. Klavitter/USFWS

“Everyone continues to be  inspired by Wisdom as a symbol of hope for her species,” said Doug Staller, the Fish and Wildlife Service Superintendent for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Monument), which includes Midway Atoll NWR.

Staff and volunteers stationed on Midway are responsible for monitoring the health of the beautiful seabirds that arrive every year  by the hundreds of thousands to nest. Upon the seabirds’ arrival, field staff  monitor them and gather information for one of the longest and oldest continuous survey data sets for tropical seabirds in the world.

Wisdom has worn out five bird bands since she was first banded by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Chandler Robbins in 1956. Robbins estimated Wisdom to be at least 5 years old at the time, since this is the earliest age at which these birds breed. Typically, they breed at 8 or 9 years of age after a very involved courtship lasting over several years so Wisdom could be even older than 62.

Wisdom preens her chick. Photo credit: J. Klavitter/USFWS

Wisdom preens her chick. Photo credit: J. Klavitter/USFWS

“As Wisdom rewrites the record books, she provides new insights into the remarkable biology of seabirds,” said Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD. “It is beyond words to describe the amazing accomplishments of this wonderful bird and how she demonstrates the value of bird banding to better understand the world around us. If she were human, she would be elible for Medicare in a couple years yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. Simply incredible.”

Peterjohn said Wisdom has likely raised at least 30 to 35 chicks during her breeding life, though the number may well be higher because experienced parents tend to be better parents than younger breeders. Albatross lay only one egg a year, but it takes much of a year to incubate and raise the chick. After consecutive years in which they have successfully raised and fledged a chick, the parents may take the occasional next year off from parenting. Wisdom is known to have nested in 2006 and then every year since 2008.

Sue Schulmeister, Manager of the Midway Atoll NWR, said, “Wisdom is one is one of those incredible seabirds that has provided the world valuable information about the longevity of these beautiful creatures and reinforces the importance of breeding adults in the population. This information helps us measure the health of our oceans that sustain albatross.”

Almost as amazing as being a parent at 62 is the number of miles Wisdom has likely logged – about 50,000 miles a year as an adult – which means that Wisdom has flown at least two million to three million miles since she was first banded. Or, to put it another way, that’s four to six trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again, with plenty of miles to spare.

Virtual Visit to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and Darryl Castillo Live in Concert

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park continues its tradition of sharing Hawaiian culture and After Dark in the Park programs with the community and visitors this month.  These programs are free, but park entrance fees may apply. Mark the calendar for these upcoming events:

Darryl Castillo

Darryl Castillo (Photos courtesy of Darryl Castillo)

Darryl Castillo Live in Concert.  Enjoy an evening of island music with versatile entertainer, singer/songwriter Darryl Castillo. Castillo has been featured in numerous television programs, including Jake and the Fatman and Island Son. His two albums, Follow the Light and Son Crazy, both garnered Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award nominations for “Best Inspirational Album.” His CDs will be available for purchase. Part of Hawai‘i Volcanoes’ ongoing Nā Leo Manu “Heavenly Voices” presentations. Free.
When: Wed., Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:15 p.m.)
Where: Kīlauea Visitor Center Auditorium

Photos courtesy of NOAA/James Watt

Photos courtesy of NOAA/James Watt

A Virtual Visit to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  The park presents an overview of Hawai‘i’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It’s been called a global treasure, rainforest of the sea, the last best place on earth, and it is a place of great cultural significance to Hawaiian people. Join Toni Parras, communications manager for Papahānaumokuākea, on a virtual visit to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This program will cover the people, the partnerships, and the promise for this amazing place. Part of Hawai‘i Volcanoes’ ongoing After Dark in the Park presentations. Free.
When: Tues., Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.
Where: Kīlauea Visitor Center Auditorium



New Research Underscores Vulnerability of Wildlife in Low-Lying Hawaiian Islands

If current climate change trends continue, rising sea levels may inundate low-lying islands across the globe, placing island biodiversity at risk. A new U.S. Geological Survey scientific publication describes the first combined simulations of the effects of sea-level rise and wave action in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, offering the most detailed and multifaceted assessment available of how island biodiversity may be affected by climate change.

USGS ReportThe publication, “Predicting Sea-Level Rise Vulnerability of Terrestrial Habitat and Wildlife of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” by Michelle H. Reynolds, Paul Berkowitz, Karen N. Courtot, Crystal M. Krause, Jamie Carter, and Curt Storlazzi is available online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2012/1182/.

Recent models predict a rise of approximately 1 meter in global sea level by 2100, with larger increases possible in parts of the Pacific Ocean. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), which extend 1,930 kilometers beyond the main Hawaiian Islands, are a World Heritage Site and part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. These islands – comprising the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary – support the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world, providing breeding habitat for 21 species of seabirds, four endemic land bird species and essential foraging, breeding or haul-out habitat for many other resident and migratory wildlife species.

“These magnificent seabirds spend the majority of their adult lives at sea: soaring vast distances over open water searching for food in an over-fished ocean. The one thing they cannot do at sea is reproduce,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “And now their breeding ground is in peril.”

The USGS team led by biologist Michelle H. Reynolds of the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center modeled what is known as passive sea-level rise (excluding wave-driven effects such as wave flooding and erosion) for islands in this biologically important region. General climate models that predict a temperature rise of 1.8–2.6 degrees Celsius and an annual decrease in rainfall of 24.7–76.3 millimeters by 2100 were applied across the study area.  For the most biologically diverse low-lying island of Laysan, dynamic wave-driven effects on habitat and wildlife populations were modeled for a range of sea-level rise scenarios.

After collecting new high-resolution topographic data in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the researchers modeled sea-level rise inundation, habitat loss, and calculated wildlife vulnerability. Given a passive sea-level rise of 1 meter, they found, about 4 percent of the land mass of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will be lost. If sea level rises 2 meters, 26 percent of the land mass will be lost. On Laysan Island, within the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, impacts from storm waves as well as groundwater rise were found to greatly amplify the effects of sea-level rise: from 4.6 percent to 17.2 percent inundation in the 2-meter scenario, for instance. Thus habitat loss would be most dramatic in the wave-exposed coastal habitats and most devastating to species with global breeding distributions primarily on the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, such as the Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), Bonin Petrel (Pterodroma hypoleuca), Gray-backed Tern (Onychoprion lunatus), Laysan Teal (Anas laysanensis), Laysan Finch (Telespiza cantans), and Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi).

This publication may be a useful tool and a starting place for developing climate change mitigation/adaptation plans as well as future scientific studies for this important region.


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Marks 25th Year as a World Heritage Site with Events

Twenty-five years ago, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park was acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest treasures, and was designated a World Heritage Site for having “superlative attributes of universal value important to the common heritage of humanity.”

Today, there are 21 World Heritage Sites in the United States (including two in Hawai‘i, the other is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument) and 962 sites worldwide.

To commemorate the silver anniversary of its World Heritage Site status, and the 40th anniversary of the international World Heritage Convention, the park is offering two events, one at the park and one at The Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast:

Jonathan B. Tourtellot, Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; Founding Director, National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations; Portal Editor, DestinationCenter.org; Principal, Focus on Places LLC

World Heritage “After Dark in the Park” Presentation. Join National Geographic Traveler editor Jonathan Tourtellot for an overview of World Heritage Sites, how World Heritage grows jobs, four common myths about World Heritage and America’s position in the global quest for World Heritage sites. No registration required. Part of Hawai‘i Volcanoes’ ongoing After Dark in the Park series. Free (but park entrance fees apply).

When: Wed., Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.
Where: Kīlauea Visitor Center Auditorium

World Heritage Anniversary Roundtable. The park, Big Island Visitors Bureau, and The Fairmont Orchid invite you to a destination roundtable with National Geographic Traveler editor Jonathan Tourtellot, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park staff, and travel industry leaders. Learn why having a World Heritage Site on our island is important, what it means to your organization, and how you can leverage this unique status in your outreach efforts. Free admission and free parking at The Fairmont Orchid; RSVP online at http://www.eventbrite.com/event/4450461450/eorg, or contact Jessica Ferracane at 808-985-6018 or via email, jessica_ferracane@nps.gov.

When: Thurs., Oct. 25 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: The Fairmont Orchid, Hawai‘i’s Plaza Ballroom

Researchers Return from 24-Day Expedition to Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

On August 24, 2012, the Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP) returned to Ford Island aboard the NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai, signaling the end of a 24-day research expedition to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).  This special place is not only the largest protected area in the United States and one of the largest in the world, but also one of the planet’s last apex predator-dominated ecosystems, its waters teeming with large schools of sharks and reef fish.

Divers conducting RAMP surveys at Gardner Pinnacles during past cruise. Credit: Jason Helyer/NOAA

The scientific party consists of staff from NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center-Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, the University of Hawaiʻi, and Scripps Research Institute.  The team made four stops during their time in the Monument, visiting French Frigate Shoals, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef and Kure Atoll to conduct various activities, including: rapid ecological assessments (REA) of reef fish, corals, other invertebrates and algae; coral disease surveys to determine disease presence in the NWHI; a bioerosion study to determine the growth and erosion of corals in the NWHI; and ecological acoustics research using underwater recording equipment.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are home to more than 7,000 marine species, including the Bluefin Trevally. Photo: James Watt

Rapid ecological assessments have been conducted in the NWHI since 2000.  Long-term monitoring of the abundance and distributions of reef fish, invertebrates, coral and algae are used to evaluate the status and trends of the health of these remote coral reef ecosystems.  These activities improve our understanding of the region’s marine systems and help us better manage the Monument.

The abundance of marine life in the NWHI can be seen in this school of Hawaiian squirrelfish at French Frigate Shoals. Photo: James Watt

This year, the team conducted 138 reef surveys across the four islands visited, recording no large coral or fish disease outbreaks, and no observations of any coral bleaching events.  Two alien species were sighted at Lisianski Island – a feather duster worm commonly found in the main Hawaiian Islands and a bryozoan (a lace-like colonial animal), both of which have been recorded in the Monument but were previously unrecorded at Lisianski.  Researchers also compiled data for a bioerosion study on corals that will help managers learn more about climate change and ocean acidification in the region.

Colorful reef fish – Pennantfish, Pyramid and Milletseed butterflyfish – school in great numbers at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals. Photo: James Watt

An acoustics team deployed and retrieved several acoustic recorders throughout the Monument and found that the biological sounds made by coral reef organisms are much louder at night – at least double the intensity. The sounds were also found to generally be louder in areas where coral cover is greater, meaning that researchers and managers can potentially use passive recordings to estimate the state of a coral reef.

Sharks and other large fish are common on most reefs throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, one of the few marine ecosystems remaining on the planet still dominated by apex predators. Photo: James Watt

Regular encounters with predatory species such as sharks and Ulua are common in the NWHI as compared to the Main Hawaiian Islands.  The team saw many schools of large Ulua and sharks, including gray reef sharks, white tips, Galapagos, and one tiger shark.

Although not specifically looking for marine debris, researchers did come across some derelict fishing nets and removed them to prevent entanglement of monk seals, turtles and other marine life.

NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai. Credit: Michelle Gaither

This year’s cruise provided an important learning and training experience for marine science students, as well as outreach to schools back on land.  Five undergraduate and five graduate students from the University of Hawaiʻi, including two PhD students from the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology, and one postdoctoral student from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, participated in the expedition to do hands-on research.  In addition, staff from PMNM and the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE) Island Earth program conducted ship-to-classroom ‘ask a scientist’ sessions via email with ten public and charter schools throughout the state.  These schools will be treated to follow up visits by one of the scientists upon conclusion of the expedition.  These interactions focus on the importance of marine sciences, the unique ecosystems in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the research conducted on the expedition.  COSEE staff also documented research activities to produce education materials and arranged two live broadcasts from the ship on the radio program Hawaii’s Tomorrow on 760 AM.

Researchers will work with partners at the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center to manage the RAMP data collected from the cruise, in an ongoing process to update an analyze time-series data collected over the years.  Results from various studies conducted in the Monument are reported at a Hawaiian symposium every year, which is open to the public.

To see the daily logs from the expedition on the PMNM website, visit: http://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/education/RAMP2012.html

Papahānaumokuākea is cooperatively managed to ensure ecological integrity and achieve strong, long-term protection and perpetuation of Northwestern Hawaiian Island ecosystems, Native Hawaiian culture, and heritage resources for current and future generations.  Three co-trustees – the Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior, and State of Hawai‘i – joined by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, protect this special place. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was inscribed as the first mixed (natural and cultural) UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States in July 2010.  For more information, please visit www.papahanaumokuakea.gov.

Japan Tsunami – “Debris Fields are No Longer Visible”

Tracking marine debris from the Japanese tsunami

Debris from the tsunami that devastated Japan in March could reach the United States as early as this winter, according to predictions by NOAA scientists. However, they warn there is still a large amount of uncertainty over exactly what is still floating, where it’s located, where it will go, and when it will arrive. Responders now have a challenging, if not impossible situation on their hands: How do you deal with debris that could now impact U.S. shores, but is difficult to find?


Federal agencies join forces

To learn more about the tsunami debris, NOAA researchers have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners to coordinate data collection activities.

NOAA and its partners are also coordinating an interagency assessment and response plan to address the wide-range of potential scenarios and threats posed by the debris.

“We’re preparing for the best and worst case scenarios — and everything in between,” says Nancy Wallace, director for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

As the tsunami surge receded, it washed much of what was in the coastal inundation zone into the ocean. Boats, pieces of smashed buildings, appliances, and plastic, metal, and rubber objects of all shapes and sizes washed into the water — either sinking near the shore or floating out to sea. The refuse formed large debris fields captured by satellite imagery and aerial photos of the coastal waters.

The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami generated 25 million tons of rubble, but there is no clear understanding of exactly how much debris was swept into the water nor what remained afloat.

What remains of the debris?

Nine months later, debris fields are no longer visible. Winds and ocean currents scattered items in the massive North Pacific Ocean to the point where debris is no longer visible from satellite. Vessels regularly traveling the North Pacific have reported very few sightings. Only two pieces have been clearly linked to the tsunami.

NOAA is coordinating new interagency reporting and monitoring efforts that will provide critical information on the location of the marine debris generated by the tsunami. Ships can now report significant at-sea debris sightings and individuals or groups can request shoreline monitoring guides at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

Where is it?

Computer models run by NOAA and University of Hawaii researchers show some debris could pass near or wash ashore in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument) as early as this winter, approach the West Coast of the United States and Canada in 2013, and circle back to the main Hawaiian Islands in 2014 through 2016.

Researchers caution that models are only predictions based on location of debris when it went into the water, combined with historical ocean currents and wind speeds.

Conditions in the ocean constantly change, and items can sink, break down, and disperse across a huge area. Because it is not known what remains in the water column nor where, scientists can’t determine with certainty if any debris will wash ashore.

Worst- and Best-case Scenarios

The worst-case scenario is boats and unmanageable concentrations of other heavy objects could wash ashore in sensitive areas, damage coral reefs, or interfere with navigation in Hawaii and along the U.S. West Coast. Best case? The debris will break up, disperse and eventually degrade, sparing coastal areas.

Debris will not go away completely, even in a best-case scenario. Marine debris is an ongoing problem for Hawaii and West Coast states, where garbage and other harmful items regularly wash up on beaches, reefs and other coastal areas.

What else is NOAA doing?

NOAA has convened experts to review available data and information from models and provide their perspectives on debris fate and transport. They are gathering information on significant sighting of marine debris in the North Pacific through NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operation’s Pacific fleet, the NOAA Voluntary Observing Ship Program, which includes industry long-haul transport vessels, as well as the NOAA Pacific Island Regional Observer Program and their work with the Hawaii longline fishing industry. NOAA is also working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii on shoreline debris monitoring in the Papahānaumokuākea Monument.

New Habitat Protections Proposed for Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals

Media Release:

The federal government has proposed to designate more than 11,000 square miles of critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals. The proposed rule protects beaches and coastal waters on all the main Hawaiian Islands and expands protected habitat in the Northwestern Islands. The proposal responds to a 2008 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean Conservancy. Hawaiian monk seals are among the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with a population of approximately 1,000 animals. The proposal will protect coastal areas for seals to raise pups and marine waters for foraging.

Map of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monum...

Image via Wikipedia

“New habitat protections, including all of the Hawaiian Islands, are essential to bring endangered Hawaiian monk seals back from the brink of extinction,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center. “The proposal to protect Hawaii’s coastline for monk seals is a landmark decision that will benefit seals and the coastal environment for generations.”

The proposed rule expands the current critical habitat area for the Hawaiian monk seal in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to include deeper waters. It also designates new areas on all of the main Hawaiian Islands: Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui and Hawaiʻi. Areas protected would include coastal land up to five meters inland and waters out to 500 meters in depth, with certain exclusions.

Studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species without it. The revised habitat protections are vital for monk seal survival because monk seals are dying of starvation, and populations of the seals on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are plummeting. Seal pups have only about a one-in-five chance of surviving to adulthood. In contrast, monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are in better condition and giving birth to healthy pups. Hawaiian monk seals are present on each of the main islands, and their numbers are slowly increasing. Thus the main islands are essential important habitat for the monk seals. Additionally, habitat in the main islands will provide a refuge for monk seals as important beaches where seal pups are born and raised have been lost due to sea-level rise and erosion.

Monk Seal sign posted at Onekekaha Beach Park

“Critical habitat compels U.S. federal agencies to consider the survival of this Hawaiian seal before they permit shoreline development — protecting our beaches and reefs not only for monk seals, but also for Hawaii’s paddlers, fishers, surfers and all people of these islands,” said Miwa Tamanaha, executive director at KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.

Critical habitat designation will mean greater protection of Hawaiian monk seal habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Critical habitat protection does not close areas, but it does limit federal government activities that could harm monk seals or their habitat. Once designated, any federal activities that may affect the critical habitat must undergo review to ensure they will not destroy or damage that habitat. For example, habitat protections can help prevent pollution and require modification of construction activities to prevent destruction of the environment.

The proposed critical habitat designation for the Hawaiian monk seal is scheduled to be published in Thursday’s Federal Register. The National Marine Fisheries Service is accepting public comments on the proposal for 90 days.

For more information about Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat and how to comment on the critical habitat designation, go to: http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD/prd_critical_habitat.html.