UH Hilo team part of expedition to Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo
Alyson Y Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 932-7669
Dir, Media Rel, University Relations
Posted: May 2, 2018

A postdoctoral researcher and two students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo are part of a scientific team embarking on a pair of research expeditions to one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world this summer. 

Dr. John Burns is one of the Principal Investigators of a $900,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Papahānaumokuākea Research and Conservation Fund. The award is sending researchers from the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawai’i to the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which is located in the northwestern sector of the Hawaiian Island chain, and spans nearly 140,000 square miles. UH Hilo’s share of the grant is approximately $100,000 and supports the hiring of a graduate student and an undergraduate. 

“The Northwestern Hawaiian archipelago supports unique and diverse habitats that are largely unexplored, along with many fish and wildlife species found nowhere else on Earth,” Burns said. “The goal of this project is to collect various data to see how environmental change is altering low-lying sand and coral reef habitats, which impacts key species such as fish, sea turtles and monk seals.”

The designated site for the research is French Frigate Shoals (Kānemiloha‘i), an ecologically important atoll where more than 90 percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles nest and a large portion of the Northwest Hawaiian Island monk seal population reproduces.

Burns’ research calls for production of high resolution 3D models and 360-degree panoramic video of the coral reef habitats to measure the impact of environmental stressors such as coral bleaching, disease and sea level rise. 

“Our 3D mapping and video, combined with the other research activities, is designed to provide a comprehensive picture of how the underwater habitats and associated organisms are responding to environmental change,” Burns said. “By increasing our understanding of these systems and the threats they face, we can develop tools to proactively manage the valuable resources in this area.”

In addition to the onsite activities, several educational and awareness initiatives are under development. The 3D images and panoramic video utilized in Burns’ research are designated for creation of interactive exhibits at Bishop Museum and NOAA’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo.

“These outreach activities provide an excellent opportunity to bring the monument to the public,” Burns said. “Integrating the 3D data and 360-degree video into virtual reality-based exhibits allows us to offer a first-hand view of these spectacular environments.”

The Papahānaumokuākea Research and Conservation Fund is part of NFWF’s broader Hawaiʻi Conservation Program. For more information on these initiatives, visit www.nfwf.org/hawaiiconservation.