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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Hawai'i drawing waves of ocean researchers

Researchers are trying to figure out how to bring the Hawaiian monk seal's declining population back from the brink of extinction.

NOAA Fisheries photos

 •  Photo gallery

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal lazes on a sunny beach. A World War II-era Japanese mini-sub lies on the ocean floor off Pearl Harbor. A strange bacterium uses a light-absorbing protein as its own solar panel, directly producing energy.

Hawai'i's natural frontiers

How Hawai'i has become a leader in scientific research.


World-class research conducted at Kilauea could help people in other regions.


Ocean research is a large and growing part of the state's cachet.


Hawai'i boasts of having the best sites for astronomy in the world.

These are subjects of ocean research in Hawai'i, a huge and growing part of the state's reputation.

The field now supports a fleet of research vessels and hundreds of scientists. In 2002, federal, university and private ocean research was worth $142 million to the economy, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism's Ocean Resources Branch.

More and more scientists are coming to Hawai'i to do marine research, because "we're an ocean state, we have research vessels available, we have universities with ocean programs" and a unique location in the central Pacific, said Robert Smith, coordinator of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

"This is an exciting place to do research," said David Karl, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawai'i's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

And that bodes well for the future of ocean science as an industry.

"We expect continued growth because we have tremendous assets that have not yet been tapped," said Liz Corbin, the state's ocean resource development manager.

Corbin cited the Islands' "powerful combination of natural, physical and human resources" and credited them with an active Hawai'i role in virtually every possible field of ocean research. She lists them as aquaculture, biotechnology, ecology, energy, engineering, fisheries, minerals, geophysics, oceanography, safety and surveying.

The range of research work being done is broad.

Small teams of researchers spend each summer in rustic field camps on several of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Their job: to study seals, protect seals and to try to figure out how to bring the population back from the brink of extinction.

A few years ago, a UH Pisces deep submersible was scanning a debris field off O'ahu's southern coast and solved a mystery — locating the wreck of a submarine that a U.S. ship reported sinking off Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Researchers based here have identified bizarre new organisms in the ocean around Hawai'i — some so strange that they have characteristics that scientists never thought to look for. They use a special protein called proteorhodopsin to convert sunlight into cellular energy.

"They're making a partial living off of light. This can be the basis for another food web that we didn't even know existed," Karl said. The compound might also have a role as a new way for humans to convert sunlight into energy.

The catalog of research inquiries being conducted around the Islands is so vast that even scientists in the industry often can't readily list all the subject areas. They're working on basic research on fisheries, studying coral reef ecology, identifying new organisms in the depths and at the surface, tracking the deep-ocean flow of nutrients around the Hawaiian Islands, working out large-scale climate patterns, probing the genetic secrets of species, mapping undersea geology and much more.

Researchers work with satellite data, shipboard information and using UH's two submersibles, Pisces IV and Pisces V.

Some of the work is hands-on, done by divers in the water. But increasingly, scientists use remote monitoring, said Michael Seki, deputy director of the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center, a Honolulu-based agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a $24 million research budget and a staff of 160.

"Out here in Hawai'i, we're in a ... unique island ecosystem. We can get realistic deep ocean conditions very close to shore," Seki said.

"We depend on remote sensing," which can include satellites, but also instrument arrays moored to the ocean floor, high-definition aerial photography of reefs, acoustical gear towed behind ships and more, he said.

Several big ships carry out research missions. They include four 200-plus-foot former military ships, NOAA's Oscar Elton Sette and the Ka'imimoana, the National Ocean Service's Hi'ialakai, and the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab's Ka'imikai O Kanaloa, plus UH's Kilo Moana, a 185-foot twin-hulled research vessel. While each ship may have one agency that is the primary user, all the boats often serve many scientists from different organizations carrying out multiple missions.

There are many smaller vessels, like the 40-foot Mana Cat run by the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the 25 or so inflatables and other runabouts dedicated to research.

Improving technology is opening up new lines of research, said marine biologist Randy Kosaki, of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. "The really hot research that's going to be going on in the next couple of years involves genetics," he said.

One group of researchers will be looking at the genetic characteristics of fish in the main Hawaiian Islands and in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Some have argued that marine life larvae from the northwestern islands constantly flow to the main islands, providing a steady source of new life as long as the northwestern islands are kept pristine. But what if the larval flow is the other way? Then a depleted main islands ecosystem could be impoverishing the entire archipelago.

Other researchers will study carbon isotopes in fish, which they hope will map out whether seaweeds or open ocean drifting plankton play a bigger role in feeding the marine life around the Islands. "Those answers are going to have profound implications on how we manage our resources," Kosaki said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts research at its 10 mid-Pacific refuges, including ones in the Hawaiian Islands. Programs identify coral coverage on reefs, study coral bleaching events and other coastal issues, and they are working to establish baselines so they can measure changes over time, said Don Palawski, refuge manager for the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

"We have an outdoor laboratory that is latitudinally from the equator to up to the northern edge of coral growth, and across the Pacific. It's still a little bit of an unexplored universe for us," Palawski said.

SOEST's Karl is working to develop a Center for Excellence in Microbial Oceanography at UH. He said the Hawaiian extreme marine environments — like sulfur vents on the undersea Lo'ihi volcano — are turning up amazing new creatures that require study.

"It's not at all like other parts of the Earth," Karl said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.

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Photo gallery

Newly hatched green sea turtles scramble out of the sand at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, just one of the places that have attracted researchers.

NOAA Fisheries photos

A University of Hawai'i deep-diving submersible encounters a Japanese mini-sub off O'ahu. The mini-sub was the first confirmed ship sunk in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory

Terry Kerby, left, and Max Cremer prepare for the next mission at the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab submersible facility near Makapu'u. State officials are optimistic about the ocean research industry because "tremendous assets have not yet been tapped."
Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Above: A buoy is loaded aboard the University of Hawai'i research vessel Ka'imikai O Kanaloa at Honolulu Harbor. The vessel left on a three-day voyage to deploy buoys in waters north of O'ahu.

David Karl • UH professor of oceanography

Right: Eagle rays swim at French Frigate Shoals. Fish genetics is predicted to become a "really hot" topic in ocean research.

NOAA Fisheries photos

Waves roll in at Makapu'u Beach Park. In 2002, ocean research was worth $142 million to the economy, according to the state.
Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser