Underwater view of dolphins near the surface in bright turquoise water.
Doplhins Spinner dolphins enjoy Hulopoʻe Bay on Lānaʻi, Hawai'i. © Alana Yurkanin/TNC

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The Nature Conservancy Is Helping to Understand How Spinner Dolphins Use Marine Life Conservation Districts on Maui and Lānaʻi

To gain a better understanding of how wildlife and humans use protected bays, underwater recording devices were deployed on Maui and Lānaʻi to record sounds from marine mammals and boats. The devices were deployed by a coalition of conservation groups in partnership with government agencies to learn how to better protect marine life at Honolua-Mokulēʻia and Mānele-Hulopoʻe Marine Life Conservation Districts (MLCDs).

Aerial view of a deep blue bay with a rocky shoreline.
Honolua-Mokuēli‘a The Hawaiʻi Association for Marine Education and Research conducts regular drone surveys of Honolua-Mokuēli‘a MLCD, capturing a rare view of the bay without boats or people. © Mark Deakos/HAMER
Rocky cliffs overlooking a bay.
Pu‘u Pehe Pu‘u Pehe rises from the sea between Mānele and Hulopo‘e Bays on the southern coast of Lāna‘i. © Roxie Sylva/TNC
Honolua-Mokuēli‘a The Hawaiʻi Association for Marine Education and Research conducts regular drone surveys of Honolua-Mokuēli‘a MLCD, capturing a rare view of the bay without boats or people. © Mark Deakos/HAMER
Pu‘u Pehe Pu‘u Pehe rises from the sea between Mānele and Hulopo‘e Bays on the southern coast of Lāna‘i. © Roxie Sylva/TNC

“These areas harbor some of the most exceptional marine life in Hawai‘i—including dolphins, manta rays, turtles and coral reefs teeming with life,” says Emily Fielding, Maui Marine Program Director for TNC. “Because there were so few tourists when the Ecological Acoustic Recorders, or EARs, were initially deployed, we will have a unique opportunity to observe if and how the behavior of spinner dolphins and other marine animals changes as visitors return to these areas once the data is retrieved and analyzed.”

Researchers on a boat deck getting ready to dive with an acoustic recorder.
Recording Underwater Sounds DAR and NOAA divers prepare an ecological acoustic recorder for deployment at Manele Bay. © Russell Sparks/DAR

The EARs will be collecting data over the next year and will provide a better understanding of when dolphins come into the MLCDs, how long they stay during daytime resting periods, if their presence is greater or lesser over time and how human activities like snorkeling and boating may change their behavior. This information will help marine resource managers develop targeted management strategies to minimize pressures on dolphins and other marine life.

“We are seeking to better understand how spinner dolphins respond to human use in these MLCDs so that we can ensure the dolphins are getting the time and space they need to survive and thrive in Maui’s waters,” says Russell Sparks, State Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources (DLNR-DAR) Maui Biologist.

The project is a collaborative effort of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, State Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources (DLNR-DAR), Oceanwide Science Institute, and the Hawaiʻi Association for Marine Education and Research, Pūlama Lānaʻi.

Over the past decade, TNC has worked with DAR and local community partners to develop Conservation Action Plans (CAPs) for six existing marine conservation areas across Maui Nui to identify natural resources, threats and solutions to help guide effective ocean management. CAP Teams for the Maui and Lānaʻi MLCDs prioritized management of protected species and the provision of safe places for spinner dolphins to rest and play undisturbed. Spinner dolphins rest during the day so they have energy to effectively hunt at night. Human interactions can disrupt resting dolphins, impact mothers tending to their young, or interrupt mating behavior, all of which could lead to a reduction in the size of the population.

“We are excited to partner with TNC and DAR to collect this valuable data using remote passive technology,” says Allen Tom, Superintendent of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “This project has worldwide implications for marine protected area management—and it takes the effort of federal, state and local partners to move a project like this forward.”

Underwater photo of a diver deploying a large recording device on the sandy sea floor.
Deploying an Acoustic Recorder A TNC diver deploys an ecological acoustic recorder to monitor behavior of spinner dolphins and other marine animals. © Jason Sturgis

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created to offer protection for humpback whales. The sanctuary constitutes one of the world’s most important humpback whale habitats. Visit https://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/.

Oceanwide Science Institute is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that was founded in 1998 in Hawaiʻi to contribute to the investigation of the oceans and the preservation of our marine resources for future generations. Visit http://oceanwidescience.org/.

Division of Aquatic Resources, Department of Land and Natural Resources’ mission is to work with the people of Hawai‘i to manage, conserve and restore the state’s unique aquatic resources and ecosystems for present and future generations. Visit https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dar/.

Hawaiʻi Association for Marine Education and Research conducts sound research to better understand the health and status of our marine resources and how better to preserve them. These findings are communicated to members of the community, empowering them with the knowledge to create effective policies, raise awareness, and ultimately change behavior to ensure our current and future generations prosper from the economic and social benefits provided by healthy and abundant marine resources. Visit https://www.hamerinhawaii.org/.

Pūlama Lānaʻi seeks to cherish the unique beauty and deep spirit of aloha on Lānaʻi by creating sustainable practices, cultural connections and economic opportunities that support our island and community. Visit https://pulamalanai.com/.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 75 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 38 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.