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New Zealand turns to using drones to prevent the extinction of the Māui | Environmental news

Wellington, New Zealand In 2018, a jack mackerel mistakenly caught a Māui dolphin in a fin net off the Taranaki coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

The fisherman faces a conundrum: While a dolphin is one of the most endangered species in New Zealand, if he drops his nets he will also be in violation of the Soil Fisheries Act. water and incur a substantial fine for dropping his catch.

He decided to save the dolphins. And, in the end, a fine was avoided.

The captain worked for Sanford, New Zealand’s largest seafood company, which has nearly 20% of New Zealand’s fishing quota. As far as the company fears, catching a Māui dolphin is one of the worst that can happen – second only to serious harm (including death) to an employee at sea .

“The Māui dolphin is a national treasure – our people live in the ocean and have a real relationship with the creatures that live there. They have great respect for the environment, and although they may not violate in a criminal sense, it will cost a fisherman a great deal of mental damage, ”said CEO Clement Chia.

With just 63 dolphins remaining off the west coast of New Zealand, fishing companies Sanford, Moana, the New Zealand Government, WWF-New Zealand, scientists and technology experts have joined forces to sponsors and develops a drone capable of finding and tracking Māui dolphins using artificial intelligence.

NGOs, scholars, governments and companies are working together on the drone project to save the rare dolphin. [Courtesy of MAUI63]

They hope to collect data on dolphin habitat, population size and behavior, which can then be used to inform government policy changes to prevent population decline. number.

Developed by the nonprofit organization MĀUI63, initial testing started in 2019, showing that AI technology can distinguish Māui dolphins from other species with more than 90% accuracy. Flying at 120 meters (393 feet) with the 50x optical zoom camera, the drone can find, track and film for up to six hours.

The first trials started in January 2021. Flights over the coming months will be used to provide insight into mammal habitats and behavior.

The project began in 2018 when the University of Auckland marine scientist Rochelle Constantine realized that researchers would no longer be able to track dolphins after an aircraft was used to complete surveys. annually sold to Australia.

“Only 7% of New Zealand is land and the rest is sea, but we are not equipped to study the oceans. There’s just a lot of money to go around, ”she said.

“In the past, we had highly trained observers on board who would go out about once a year and report on what they see. You have to rely on their expertise and timing. On the other hand, there is no visual record if sightings are suspected. “

Cheaper, more secure

Airplanes and boats are costly and inefficient, and data cannot be collected during the winter months due to weather conditions. Drones will be cheaper, safer for people and ecosystems and – in theory – the data they collect can be more scalable.

Constantine teamed up with tech expert Tane van der Boon, medical doctor and drone enthusiast Willy Wang, and the MĀUI63 project was born.

Van der Boon said the technology has the potential to collect detailed data on dolphin habitat, population size, distribution and behavior, which could be used for risk modeling and construction. policy making.

Chief Industry Department Investment Program Director Steve Penno said the government has funded the project because it is an innovative approach to a problem affecting national treasure.

“The details around the project, including how information is provided, is being worked on by MĀUI63,” he said.

Such detailed information has raised concerns that it could be misused or exploited, be it by fishing or tourism companies for commercial gain.

Sanford’s share said the data was not used for commercial purposes and stressed that the company doesn’t have a creative or economic stake in the project.

New Zealand’s Maui dolphin population plummeted in the 1970s due to increased gill use in shallower waters. [Rochelle Constantine/Department of Conservation, University of Auckland]

“For us, the environment is important,” he said. “We don’t want to be a company that captures an endangered animal. It’s not good for us and the industry in terms of credibility and morality. We want to do better, work in a sustainable way, and use the latest technology. It is a win-win and good for all results. “

Māui’s population declined dramatically in the 1970s as more and more people started using nets to carry fish in shallower waters, and dolphins died of suffocation after being trapped in nets. However, it was not until the 1980s that conservationists realized the extent of the decline and found that the population was only a few hundred.

Fishing is not the only threat to dolphins, Constantine notes.

Dangerous parasite

The greatest risk is death from toxoplasmosis – a parasite found in cat feces.

“The parasite can only complete its life cycle through cats – maybe a billion parasitic cysts in a cat. [faeces],” she speaks.

“The parasite can survive in weather conditions and is almost indestructible. Once it enters our waterways, it will be eaten by fish, and thus dolphins eat. From there, it is thought to cause internal failure and it attacks the brain. “

The parasite also affects humans, where it can cause flu-like symptoms and serious problems for the unborn baby.

In 2013, former politician Gareth Morgan made international waves when he tried to get rid of feral cats into New Zealand politics but failed. Despite the potential impact on humans, “it’s no surprise that right now there is no political opinion to kill cats,” Constantine said.

However, the drone can help with the problem.

“It will show dolphin migration patterns, where the stream flows either [the problem areas where Toxoplasma gondii] where, where and when there is a significant overlap between these two factors.

Data from drones could also help researchers deal with dolphins’ single biggest threat – toxoplasmosis – found in cat feces and eaten by dolphins when they eat fish. [Courtesy of MAUI63]

“This data, if used appropriately, could help prevent a decline towards the extinction of the Māui dolphins and assume we begin to use it for other endangered marine animals, it could be a completely game-changing tool for conservation, ”says Constantine.

The potential of technology has helped unite civil society, science, and government groups like never before.

WWF-New Zealand chief executive Livia Esterhazy said each side may have conflicting interests but data will bring the country forward.

“Conservation is often left behind. The time it takes to consult or try to determine the best approach is the time when these animals become more threatened. “Business as usual” is no longer an option, “she said.

“Our vision is for people to live in harmony with nature. We want to make sure these precious creatures are protected, but we also want to make sure people can continue to fish, within boundaries that are environmentally sustainable. We can all sit in different camps but this data will push us forward. It is very interesting. “



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