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Drones Have Another New Application, whalE Entanglement Response.
by Alicia Amerson
Drones are increasingly becoming effective tools for conservation biologist and emergency responders. During the 2016 Dungeness crab fishing season over 71 whales were reported entangled in fishing gear off the California coast. Only 9 whales were reported to be fully disentangled. Volunteer teams that are trained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dedicate their time (most often unpaid time away from their jobs) to respond to whales suffering from entanglement. Recently, the west coast entanglement response network used a drone to help successfully disentangle a whale. The NOAA officials mentioned that the drone was able to capture photos quickly and then the download pictures of the entanglement were shared with the team to develop a strategy that in-the-end successfully disentangled the humpback whale.
After a report comes into the NOAA entanglement response hotline it can be difficult to find the whale unless the reporting person stays with the whale until responders are able to launch a boat and take over. Even whales that are entangled can swim many miles in one day. As the whale swims it drags the gear behind further tightening the rope around it’s body, mouth, fins, and fluke. Literally, as the rope tightens it starts to cut into the whale’s blubber, sometimes all the way to the bone. The pain, lack of food, and hydration causes a very slow death for the entangled whale. This is why a reporter staying with the whale is so vital to the emergency response effort. When a whale has to be relocated after a report comes in it is possible for a drone to cover a sizeable distance to find the whale. Sometimes human eye does not see a blow from the whale or may miss the whale behind a large wave. AliMoSphere proposes to use drones to relocate whales in distress and assist in entanglement response. If you are interested in joining our efforts please click here.
Once the whale is located and the responders are on the scene, they know how important it is to make a conscious rope cut. In most entanglements the responders only get one opportunity to cut the rope off the whale. If they don’t cut the rope in a place that will fully disentangle the whale, the whale will continue to be entangled and suffer with little opportunity for the team to try for a second cut. It is a one-cut-one-opportunity mission for the response team. Drones can get a view of the entanglement from the top. This can immediately assist the response team. When the responders know how the rope is wrapped around the body of the whale they can make a cut that will hopefully cause all the rope to be released from the whale’s body.
Whales use sound to travel through the ocean, and increased boat engine noise causes acoustic pollution in our ocean. This is a issue for whales and dolphins all around the world. As the team approaches the whale with a boat the increased acoustic noise from the engine can be distressing. The team has to document the entanglement by putting cameras into the water. By using a drone to get a top view, they can fly from a further distance allowing the whale to swim with minimal disturbance before the physical response effort commences.
Drones can help monitor where whales are located in high-effort fishing areas. As drones are monitoring the area, fishermen can receive information about whale locations and potential foraging areas when bait balls are seen from the air. There are already many drone (#dronesforgood) applications including whale conservation - we are excited to see how the application of drones will work to help successfully disentangle whales and keep responders safe in the process.
To summarize drones can:
Why are so many whales getting entangled?
Because there are more of them! In fact conservation efforts along the west coast of North America are so successful that gray whales are no longer listed on the Endangered Species List and a few subpopulations of humpback whales may soon follow in their footsteps. Also, fishermen are typically first level responders, they are the ones reporting the entangled whales. With more humans on the water the more reports are coming in, so in most cases where high number of entanglements are reported there is a correlation between increased human activity on the water. There are also oceanic conditions that change annually. These changes lead to different distributions of the whale's prey and in some cases the whale's dinner is in the same location as fishing efforts. How to report an entangled whale.
Alicia Amerson will be at the Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada from October 22-28. She is presenting her 2016 policy work that procured $100,000 of California state funds for the volunteer network and her 2017 policy work to procure $2.1 million for stranding and entanglement volunteers. At the conference she will promote the use of drones for entanglement response and encourage more women to become UAS pilots. Follow her at the conference: Facebook and Instagram.
She also encourages all UAS pilots to join a class to learn more about flying drones responsibly in whale habitat.