Scientists Using Drones to Help Monitor the Remaining 63 Māui Dolphins From Extension

For generations, people all over the world have had a fascination with dolphins. Beautiful, intelligent, and graceful creatures, dolphins are marine mammals that have become famous for how they interact with people. Unfortunately, humans have caused some dolphin species to decline in numbers. The baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, is one of the first documented animals to have been driven to be classified as functionally extinct because of human impact. The rivers the baiji called home became so overly fished and polluted that the last possible sighting of a baiji was in 2007. Scientists and conservationists are racing to protect other vulnerable species from the fate of the baiji.

Endemic to New Zealand is the smallest breed of dolphins, Hector’s dolphin. The species is broken into two groups, the South Island Hector’s dolphin and the Māui dolphin that can be found off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Being an island nation, fishing is key to the survival of the people of New Zealand. Hector’s and Māui dolphins, like many dolphins, love to chase after fishing trawlers. They enjoy playing in the wakes made by the boats. The nets provide them with easy access to food. The dolphins get trapped in the nets, and being mammals that need to reach that surface for air, they drown. New Zealand’s dolphins becoming trapped and suffocating in fishing nets have led to drastic declines in their numbers. Currently, the South Island Hector’s dolphin is classified as endangered. The Māui dolphin is listed as critically endangered. It is estimated that there are only 63 viable Māui dolphins left in the wild.

Fishing restrictions have been put in place throughout the waters of New Zealand to protect these endangered animals. Though these restrictions have been useful in protecting Hector’s and Māui dolphins, accidents still happen. For those who fish in New Zealand, capturing a dolphin in one of their nets is not only illegal but can be devastating. Earlier this year a fisherman working for New Zealand’s largest seafood company, Sanford, was heartbroken when he found a Māui dolphin stuck in his net. He was stuck in a tricky position as a fine could be imposed on him for breaching other fishing regulations when releasing the net back into the water. “Māui dolphins are a national treasure – our people live out on the sea and have a real affinity to the creatures that live there. They have a huge respect for the environment, and while they mightn’t be in breach in a criminal sense, it would take a huge emotional toll on a fisherman,” said Sanford Chief Operating Officer Clement Chia. The fisherman made the right decision to protect the Māui dolphin, releasing his net. His act of saving the endangered creature prevented any fines from occurring.

Professor of Biological Studies at the University of Auckland, Rochelle Constantine, has been studying Māui dolphins for several decades. In 2019, she began working with Tane Van Der Boon, an IT innovator, and Willy Wang, a drone enthusiast, to develop a better way to study and protect Māui dolphins. With support from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and private companies like Sanford, Rochelle, Tane, and Willy founded MAUI63. The name refers to the 63 remaining dolphins they are striving to protect. It also is an acronym that stands for Marine Animal Unmanned Identification.

Before teaming up with Tane and Willy, Rochelle would get about 3 weeks every few years to observe Māui dolphins when they would approach the shores during the summer. It was a tiring, unreliable method of guessing where the dolphins would show up and hoping to spot them from a boat or expensive plane. With MAUI63, Rochelle and her team can monitor Māui dolphins year round at a fraction of the cost of the previous system. MAUI63 uses a VTOL (Vertical Take Off Landing) drone from Chinese manufacturer JOUAV. Tane and Willy have outfitted the drone with cameras and AI (Artificial Intelligence) programs that can provide the team with critical information on Māui dolphins.

With a bird’s eye view, the drone can find Māui dolphins out in the wild and track them. As Tane explains, “So essentially, the drone allows us to not just to find them and map them, but also follow them so we can really start to understand, you know, their behaviors out in the ocean. It flies in between 140 and 160 km an hour. It’ll fly for 6 hours on its own. On top of that, a camera – we’ve got 50x zoom on board, we’ve got 50 km range from the base station – so we can see full HD video, and because we can fly for such a long period of time, we can actually track them and follow them. Then we can really understand where they’re going and how they move and who they hang out with.” The drone’s camera and AI system can pick up specific markers that allow the researchers to recognize individual dolphins. The drone is also able to distinguish with up to 90% accuracy dolphins and other marine wildlife.

All of the data collected with the drone will give researchers a better understanding of how to protect Māui dolphins. Until now, much of what scientists like Rochelle know about Māui dolphins is based on speculation. The drone will allow them to develop detailed profiles on what creatures they interact with, where they mate and spawn, their feeding habits, and regions they frequent. With this information, human threats from fisheries and pollution can be better managed to give the Māui dolphins a fighting chance at survival.

Although MAUI63 was founded in 2019, the project utilizing the drone is just now taking off. “In the coming year, we want to make sure that the platform works and show that others can use it to survey coastal New Zealand waters for Hector’s and Māui dolphins initially, but you know, using it for other marine things as well,” Rochelle said. “I think this is going to really leap New Zealand research forward, you know, in the marine space.” We can’t determine whether or not drone technology could have been used to protect the baiji dolphin from extinction. But Rochelle and her team are confident that drones will be essential in helping conservationists prevent the extinction of other species.

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