Monday, May 26, 2014

Team back on storm-ravaged Tern Island research station , but only temporarily

Fish and Wildlife Service staff are back on Tern Island at French Frigate Shoals this week, for the second time since a storm destroyed the research station there in December 2012.

This is not a permanent re-occupation.

 (Image: Meg Duhr-Schultz, former station manager at Tern Island, saves a green sea turtle that was trapped behind the rusting steel plates that form much of Tern Island’s perimeter. Credit: USFWS)

On December 9, 2012, a storm cell within a low pressure system smashed into the little island before dawn, with intense winds that ripped out windows, destroyed a boat shed, blew away or disabled the solar power system and wiped out most communications. Our report on that is here.

The Fish and Wildlife Service pulled out its biologist and four volunteers nine days later. The Tern station was left for months without human presence, apparently for the first time since before it became a Coast Guard LORAN station many decades ago.

A team went back last spring to clean up the station and to secure it. The Fish and Wildlife Service team left the island a year ago in May 2013. Here us a report on that mission

 (Image: Tern Island from the air. Credit: USFWS)

By end of spring 2013 reduced budgets eliminated a Tern Island position and prevented the rebuilding of the main administrative and housing facility.  

A NOAA-NMFS crew stayed through the summer, working from tents until September 2013. That team conducted monk seal research.

A three-member Fish and Wildlife Service team on the island now is tasked with conducting wildlife assessments and figuring out the condition of the facilities—including what it would take to restore the research presence.

Among the issues at Tern is that the collapsing human-built facilities on the island have the potential of entrapping wildlife (see upper image). Among the functions of the research teams over the years have been assessing threats to wildlife, and helping mitigate them.

French Frigate Shoals lies about 400 miles northwest of Kauai, within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a protective overlay within the monument.

French Frigate Shoals has a small emergent basalt remnant of the original volcanic island. It is called La Perouse Pinnacle. But mostly, shoals is an appropriate term. It is a 22-mile-long crescent of reefs and sand bars. Tern, at the northern end of the reef complex, was one of the sandbars until it was modified to serve as a military base.

When Tern was built up by the Navy during World War II, military teams created a large rectangular structure by slamming steel plates into the reef around an existing sand bar. They filled the interior with the spoils from a dredged channel. The flat area created a roughly 3,300-foot flat coral surface that served as a runway for small aircraft for the next half-century.

The Navy maintained an air station on Tern from 1942 to 1946, and the Coast Guard built and maintained its Long Range Navigation (LORAN) station there from 1952 until it was phased out in 1979.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has had a presence there since the 1970s. Tern is a major Hawaiian monk seal habitat, and is the primary nesting place for the Hawaiian green sea turtle. Additionally, numerous 16 species of seabirds nest  by  thousands on the island.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

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