Can drones protect the Māui dolphins from extinction?
Accurate or not, the recently released Netflix documentary Seaspiracy has been generating a lot of dialogue about the damaging effects of fishing on the world’s oceans.
Among other things, the film claims that the fishing industry is pushing many species to the verge of extinction, both directly (via overfishing) and indirectly (via pollution and unintentional fish casualties).
While policymakers and businesses need to have serious discussions about structural solutions to this problem, environmental preservation initiatives are currently making the most of the strategies and resources at their disposal.
In particular, a public-private partnership in New Zealand is using drones to help protect the critically endangered Māui dolphin.
What are Māui dolphins, and why are they critically endangered?
Māui dolphins are one of the rarest and smallest dolphin subspecies globally.
They are only found off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) estimates that only about 55 are left in the world.
Because Māui dolphins live close to the shore, they are constantly threatened by bycatch, becoming tangled in recreational and commercial gill and trawl nets. For example, Gillnets are made of a fine mesh that dolphins are unable to detect underwater and they accidentally swim into them and become caught.
Other threats these dolphins face include being struck by boats, pollution in their habitat, coastal development and seabed mining.
Beyond the threat posed by the fishing industry, these dolphins are also susceptible to death by toxoplasmosis – a parasite found in wild cat feces.
Apart from wild cat eradication, a politically untenable measure, it is thought that the way to protect Māui dolphins from toxoplasmosis is to track their migration patterns and deal with runoff likely to contain toxoplasmosis in areas where they are likely to be.
How are drones going to help?
The non-profit organization MĀUI63 has been working with a group of partners including Moana – a Maori (indigenous New Zealander) owned fishing company, WWF-New Zealand, and a group of affiliated scientists and technology experts, to protect the Māui dolphin by developing a drone that is capable of finding and tracking them using artificial intelligence.
The project started in 2018 when a University of Auckland marine scientist, Rochelle Constantine, realized that researchers would no longer be able to track Māui dolphins after an aircraft that had been used to complete annual surveys was sold to Australia.
Constantine, now MĀUI63’s research lead, and her teammates hope to gather data on the dolphins’ habitat, population size, and behavior, which could then be used to inform government policy changes that would protect the species.
The initiative has received funding from the New Zealand government’s Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, as well as support from several other public and private sponsors.
How successful has the initiative been so far?
Initial testing began in 2019, and beta-testing started in January of this year.
While it’s too early to tell how successful it will be overall, it certainly has a lot of public support, withe Prime Minister of New Zealand attending the initiative’s launch event and publicly discussing the initiative as part of her administration’s policy priority to protect endangered species.
In terms of technology, so far, the MAUI63 claims that the AI technology can distinguish Māui dolphins from other species with more than 90-percent accuracy. The organization’s hybrid VTOL drone can fly at an altitude of 120 metres (393 feet) and can find, follow, and film for up to six hours with a 50x optical zoom camera.
Because fully autonomous drones are not yet allowed for by the New Zealand Aviation Authority, MAUI63 worked with their manufacturer to interface their AI with a system that allows the drone to chase dolphin detections if a pilot approves.
Now that MĀUI63 has more or less proven the technical functionality of its drone solution, it’s time to see whether the program can make a tangible difference in protecting Māui dolphins. Fish are New Zealand’s fifth largest export commodity by value, and the commercial fishing industry is thought to be worth over $4 billion, so unfortunately, it seems likely that the dolphins will continue to be threatened by bycatch and other industry-related dangers.
MĀUI63’s spokespeople have stated that over the coming months, the organization will be able to gather enough data to provide concrete insights into the Māui dolphins’ habitat and behavior. Assuming they succeed in doing that, time will tell whether policymakers, activists, and fishing companies make the most of these insights.
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