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Funded PhD project: population assessments for insular cetaceans in Hawaii

Call for applicants for a funded PhD project: population assessments for insular cetaceans in

the Main Hawaiian Islands

The Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology

(HIMB), NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and Cascadia Research

Collective (CRC) are seeking applicants for a PhD project that aims to improve population

assessments for insular cetaceans in the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI).

Applicants must have strong analytical skillsets and, ideally, strong coding experience in areas

pertaining to machine-learning and artificial intelligence. The successful candidate will be

provided with full tuition costs and a PhD stipend for four years at the University of Hawaiʻi,

funded by the NOAA Fisheries QUEST program (see below). As the fellowship is intended to

create a pipeline into NOAA Fisheries, the supported student must be a U.S. citizen.


Hawaiʻi’s unique ecosystems support insular (island-associated) populations of several cetacean

species that are otherwise considered to have pelagic distributions. To date, five species with

island-associated stocks in the Main Hawaiian Islands are recognized within the NMFS Stock

Assessment Reports, including spinner, pantropical spotted, and bottlenose dolphins, false

killer whales and melon-headed whales, and others are likely to be recognized in the coming

years as additional genetic, movement, abundance, and demographic data become available.

Assessments of insular cetaceans are challenged by the distribution of these stocks, as typical

large-scale line-transect surveys used for surveying cetaceans over large areas are

inappropriate and yield insufficient sightings to conduct robust abundance analyses. Further,

many of these island-associated stocks overlap with pelagic populations.

PIFSC and CRC have been conducting surveys near each of the MHI for over a decade and have

amassed a large sighting, individual photo-ID, and telemetry dataset for over a dozen species.

To date, these data have been essential for evaluating population structure and range and have

provided the data needed to conduct mark-recapture abundance estimates for some insular

stocks, including MHI insular false killer whales (Bradford et al. 2017) and bottlenose dolphins

(Van Cise et al. in review, Baird et al. 2009). However, nonsystematic data collection and the

significant time investment to maintain photo-ID catalogs for some species have meant that the

data do not readily fit within NOAA’s other assessment frameworks. This PhD project will aim to

adapt existing or develop new analytical tools to allow for greater use of this type of non-

systematic data commonly collected by CRC, PIFSC, and other research partners in order to help

the PIFSC fill assessment gaps for several insular populations. The specific approach and

species chosen will be determined based on the qualifications and interests of the selected

graduate student and in collaboration with the MMRP, PIFSC and CRC partners, though will

generally include the elements described below.

This project will aim to use a rich sighting, photo, and telemetry dataset from one or more

species to develop and validate new analytical approaches that do not require such a rich

dataset for use on the other species. Projects may include:

- Development and application of artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches

for photo-ID matching or other analyses.

- Development of advanced statistical approaches to modeling species abundance and

range using survey datasets with non-systematic effort, possibly including use of

encounter-only models to assess population abundance, with validation of those models

using the photo-ID and telemetry data available for those species.

- Examining the sensitivity of resulting abundance and other demographic parameter

estimates to various data types, data distribution through time, and other factors that

may influence population demographics.

We encourage applicants with strong coding and statistical skills to apply. The successful

graduate student will most likely use large datasets collected from false killer whales, rough-

toothed or spotted dolphins, though data from a number of other species are also available for

development, testing, and validation of approaches.

The project is well-suited to a PhD project given the need to explore a variety of analytical

frameworks, understand the nature of large and complex datasets, and develop and validate

approaches that can be used in an assessment context. The student will be well-supported by a

highly quantitative team at the University of Hawaiʻi and PIFSC and the successful student will

contribute directly to NOAA Fisheries assessment needs.

The Quantitative Ecology and Socioeconomics Training (QUEST) program is designed to prepare

the next generation of assessment scientists for careers in fisheries or protected species

population assessment, ecosystem assessment, and marine resource economics. The PIFSC

QUEST program supports graduate fellowships for students working toward such quantitative

fields, with the goal of building capacity for the PIFSC workforce to meet its science

requirements under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Marine

Mammal Protection Act, and Endangered Species Act. QUEST students collaborate with PIFSC

researchers to develop student capabilities and skills directly related to mission needs. The

QUEST student will work closely with a PIFSC work-group (in this case the Cetacean Research

Program within the Protected Species Division) and will be expected to spend a portion of each

year (generally summer, though this is flexible) working at PIFSC. As the fellowship is intended

to create a pipeline into NOAA Fisheries, the supported student must be a U.S. citizen.

To apply:

Candidates should submit the following materials via email to in a single

PDF document, with the file name “YourLastName_QUEST_PhD.pdf” and the subject heading

“QUEST PhD application” by 1 October, 2020:

1) Brief introductory cover letter (maximum of 1 page)

2) Two statements covering (maximum 1 page each):

a) Provide an overview of your quantitative skillsets, analytical skillsets

and/or coding experience in areas pertaining to machine-learning and artificial


b) What you hope to gain through a graduate school experience

3) Your CV

The chosen candidate would then apply (in December 2020) for entrance into a PhD program

with the Marine Mammal Research Program the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the

University of Hawaii – with a start date in August 2021.


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