Scientists on Canada’s coasts are exploring the usage of satellites to surveil whales and different ocean “megafauna” to raised monitor and shield at-risk ocean species.
The fast advance of very high-resolution (VHR) satellite tv for pc imagery and dropping prices are offering conservationists with alternatives to find, depend and monitor wildlife and their essential habitat from the cosmos. The method is very useful in distant areas or expanses of ocean which are tough for scientists to entry.
In October, College of Ottawa researchers had been the primary to determine a specific endangered North Atlantic proper whale (NARW) utilizing satellite tv for pc pictures. Newly out there high-resolution pictures, together with superb climate circumstances, confirmed the massive, distinctive white scar on the again of a whale named Ruffian, one of many roughly 336 critically endangered whales.
This newest analysis benchmark is a part of the smartWhale undertaking — a big federal initiative launched in 2021 by the Canadian House Company and the Division of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) together with Transport Canada to advance the usage of satellite tv for pc information and laptop algorithms to detect, monitor and shield proper whales.
VHR satellite tv for pc imagery can be being explored to detect and estimate beluga, narwhal and presumably even walrus populations within the Arctic as a part of the House Whales and Arctic Marine Mammals (SWAMM) program — the opposite massive initiative at the moment underway in Canada.
A complete of 292 beluga whales and 109 narwhals had been detected after analyzing 12 VHR pictures taken in August 2017 and 2019 by the WorldView-3 satellite tv for pc of two areas close to Baffin Island frequented by belugas through the summer season.
A wave of curiosity can be rising on the B.C. coast to make use of house know-how to detect and shield massive at-risk ocean species, together with blue, fin, gray and humpback whales and endangered basking sharks, mentioned Rebecca Martone, government director for the Ocean Decade Collaborative Centre Northeast Pacific Area.
DFO and the Ocean Decade centre held a two-day webinar and workshop originally of November to discover the feasibility and potential use of satellite tv for pc information within the area, Martone mentioned.
VHR satellite tv for pc imagery is a vital complement to conventional surveys from shore or with plane, drones, hydrophones or boats to raised perceive at-risk species and their actions throughout huge areas to enhance their survival and restoration, she mentioned.
Canadian researchers are actively exploring satellites as a option to monitor whales and different at-risk ocean creatures from house. #SpaceTech #Conservation #Biodiversity #COP15 #SpeciesAtRisk
Whale populations on the Pacific coast don’t group collectively and are unfold throughout massive areas, Martone mentioned.
“It helps to have each type of software in your toolkit to have the ability to discover them.”
The know-how’s use isn’t restricted to whale detection. It is also used to observe marine protected areas or do assessments and handle dangers equivalent to transport lanes or oil spills, she added.
The concept to make use of satellite tv for pc imagery to detect whales surfaced 20 years in the past, however the decision of the out there pictures initially wasn’t adequate. That modified when the U.S. allowed industrial satellite tv for pc picture firms to supply increased high quality pictures in 2014. The profitable identification of southern proper whales in Argentinian waters with satellite tv for pc photographs occurred quickly after.
The worth of satellites to know whales additionally isn’t restricted to monitoring the residing.
Research have showcased how satellites may help find, assess and maybe even forestall whale strandings in remoted areas. House photographs had been used to look at the loss of life of 350 sei whales that washed ashore in Chile’s Patagonia area in early 2015 — the most important baleen whale mass stranding ever recorded.
Understanding why and the place whale strandings happen, particularly if they’re repeated or contain massive numbers, is important for researchers. It helps determine and forestall persistent human-caused threats equivalent to ship strikes or air pollution, or bigger climatic or ecosystem issues, such because the poisonous algal blooms triggered by warming waters that prompted the sei whale mortality occasion.
On the brighter aspect, satellite tv for pc imagery may also uncover unknown scorching spots of at-risk species. One stellar instance concerned researchers NASA photographs for enormous guano stains that in the end revealed hidden colonies of 1.5 million Adélie penguins on the Hazard Islands north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
There are nonetheless limiting elements to the know-how, however most are possible to enhance as advances proceed apace, Martone mentioned.
Photos and information downloads from house don’t happen in dwell time, nor are industrial satellites able to homing in on small particulars or figuring out options, as Hollywood spy motion pictures recommend.
Detecting whales or basking sharks within the Pacific Northwest, with its mercurial climate, will be compromised by cloud cowl, solar glint, heavy waves and poor water readability, or floating particles equivalent to logs and rafts of seaweed.
The decision of most pictures can be nonetheless too low to obviously distinguish between completely different whale species of comparable measurement form equivalent to gray, humpback and fin whales that co-exist in the identical waters, Martone mentioned. And animals that aren’t near the floor of the water are harder to detect or determine.
Eleven satellites at the moment seize photographs of Canada, that are distributed by 4 main industrial picture firms. Usually, the very best imagery has a spatial decision of 30 centimetres, which means it captures particulars which are better than or equal to 30-cm sq..
However Worldview-3 satellite tv for pc imagery can now be sharpened or enhanced to fifteen cm, a characteristic anticipated to permit researchers to differentiate between some forms of whales and even explicit people, such because the identification of Ruffian the best whale. It’s anticipated that 10-cm decision pictures could be out there in 2024, Martone mentioned.
Analyzing a lot of pictures manually is extraordinarily time consuming for researchers, she mentioned. Work is underway worldwide to develop algorithms and machine studying to mechanically sift by and detect completely different marine mammals in massive datasets of satellite tv for pc pictures.
Beneath the federal smartWhale undertaking, $5.3 million was divided up between 5 tech firms and whale analysis groups to develop programs for 2 functions: to detect and monitor North Atlantic proper whales and predict or mannequin their actions to guard them from vessel collisions or entanglement in fishing gear.
Discovering sufficient various pictures of a person whale species to make use of as enter to coach a detection system will be difficult, Martone mentioned.
No system so far can differentiate between particular forms of whales, which means researchers would nonetheless want to examine flagged pictures to determine which species of whales on the Pacific Coast had been captured.
VHR satellite tv for pc imagery will be cheaper and safer when surveying distant Arctic areas or the open oceans, nevertheless it’s nonetheless expensive to purchase pictures at a big scale for non-government organizations, teachers, First Nations or growing nations.
However costs for satellite tv for pc imagery are dropping, and scientists can goal areas and dates that may supply helpful pictures, equivalent to whales’ breeding grounds, for good inhabitants counts or purchase helpful archival photographs at diminished costs.
Endangered Pacific basking sharks are a great for a pilot undertaking utilizing satellite tv for pc imagery to review ocean creatures on the Pacific coast, Martone mentioned.
The sharks, that are believed emigrate to B.C. waters from California in the summertime, will be 12 metres lengthy. Their measurement and grey-brown color, which contrasts properly with the ocean, together with their behavior of spending plenty of time lounging on the floor of the water makes them good candidates for satellite tv for pc monitoring.
The slow-moving giants are not often noticed, Martone mentioned, with solely 37 confirmed sightings between 1996 and 2018. There’s little information to tell safety efforts, with estimates suggesting solely 321 to 535 basking sharks may ply Canada’s Pacific waters.
“It’s like in search of a needle in a haystack,” Martone mentioned.
Satellites can cowl extra of the sharks’ open ocean habitat, rising the chance of recognizing them and studying extra about them, she added.
“Spying on them from house can …assist be sure that their inhabitants is recovering.”
Rochelle Baker / Native Journalism Initiative / Canada’s Nationwide Observer