Science and Exploration
Science and exploration are fundamental to the sanctuary program's mission to protect and manage some of the world's most complex ecosystems. These two words go hand-in-hand when talking about protecting and sustaining ecosystems. Without the science, you cannot make the necessary ecosystem-based management decisions that help maintain these precious marine habitats that all of us enjoy and depend upon for food, jobs and our national identity.
Throughout the year, sanctuary staff and our partners mounted numerous scientific expeditions and explored regions of the deep sea for the first time. An important aspect of all sanctuary science is the dissemination of information collected in these scientific endeavors. It is important to share the knowledge gained with other organizations and our sanctuary communities to strengthen protection of marine resources nationwide. Following are a few exciting examples of the types of science conducted in sanctuaries.
Research Makes a SPLASH
The largest international humpback whale study ever attempted heads into its third and final year. Known as the Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks study, or more commonly called SPLASH, sanctuary staff coordinated several research teams in Hawai'i and along the U.S. west coast. A few whale scientists also joined offshore cruises in Alaska and in the Commander Islands Marine Sanctuary in Russia, which are important humpback summer feeding grounds.
Scientists are also conducting biopsies and fluke identifications in sanctuary waters in Hawai'i and along the U.S west coast. A total of 4,412 fluke photographs and 1,097 biopsy samples have been taken by researchers around the North Pacific in the winter breeding and calving areas for humpback whales. Analysis of this information helps researchers understand more about this endangered migratory species. The effort is a partnership with NOAA Fisheries. Please visit the SPLASH research project Web page that contains in-depth information on how scientists are studying humpbacks all over the North Pacific.
Mapping for Science
There are still unexplored regions in the ocean and species yet to be identified. Much like biologists create color-coded maps of the earth's different habitats, sanctuary staff are doing the same thing with the undersea world. These maps give sanctuary managers information on seafloor characteristics and the different types of animals that live there. Habitat characterization maps, as they are also called, are an important tool to help us understand potential impacts from natural or human influences. For example, in the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary, mapping expeditions have revealed that some reefs may be connected to other banks in the northern Gulf of Mexico through low reef ridges previously unknown. These "habitat highways" likely provide protection and foraging grounds for animals traveling between the various banks. Click here for the full story and graphics.
Monitoring System Installed To Detect Biotoxins
Olympic Coast sanctuary staff deployed a network of buoys at five sites in the sanctuary. The buoys were outfitted with instruments that provide data on various ocean conditions. When these conditions are right, the system can detect harmful algal blooms as they move toward shore. Once these algal blooms reach the coast, the biotoxins within the algae contaminate shellfish consumed by people and marine wildlife, such as seals and sea otters. Data from the summer season will be combined with information from four other west coast sanctuaries to better forecast toxic blooms quickly to protect human health.
Marine Mammal and Seabird Survey in West Coast Sanctuaries
NOAA researchers in Washington and California completed the first leg of a comprehensive marine mammal and seabird project. Scientists estimated the abundance of more than 30 marine mammals and seabirds found off the U.S. west coast. Documenting the abundance of these environmentally sensitive animals is an effective way to track overall ocean health. The project kicked off with a 10-day survey in Olympic Coast and continued in all four sanctuaries. Within the Olympic Coast sanctuary, researchers documented abundance and locations of orcas, humpbacks whales, several species of porpoises and a first ever sighting of a sperm whale and common dolphin within the sanctuary.
Technology Makes Ocean Transparent for Humpback Studies
In the past, scientists were able to study whale behavior at the surface but lost contact when the whale submerged. By applying a new technique that uses a special recording device in a suction-cup tag, scientists are now able to watch the whale virtually, making the water column essentially transparent. Researchers from Stellwagen Bank placed recording devices, known as D-Tags, on the backs of several humpback whales. After retrieving the tags, the researchers analyzed the whale movement, sound and depth data with an innovative software program developed at the University of New Hampshire. The analysis produced a pseudo-track of the whales' movements and revealed that humpbacks, when feeding, dive to the bottom, turn onto their sides and forage along the seafloor. These actions increase their susceptibility to entanglement in gillnets and lobster gear. Scientists hope to learn more about how whale behavior changes when vessels are present; types of seafloor habitats that the whales may be foraging over; and whale communication.
New Research Vessels Improve Science in Sanctuaries
Two new NOAA research vessels are now plying the waters of Thunder Bay and Gray's Reef national marine sanctuaries. In Thunder Bay, the 41-foot Huron Explorer, a refurbished U.S. Coast Guard utility boat, uses 100% soy biodiesel for engine fuel and all natural vegetable oil-based lubricants. The Huron Explorer, operated by NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, is one of the first NOAA vessels to operate without any petroleum-based products. The 36-foot Sam Gray is a new vessel designed to quickly travel offshore to Gray's Reef. The two vessels are both designed to meet specific science, enforcement and education needs in their respective sanctuaries. The program plans to christen three additional vessels in 2006.