Conservationists using space technology to monitor world's whale population

Saturday, February 22, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: whale populations, satellite technology, wildlife conservation

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(NaturalNews) In a bid to keep better track of the world's whale populations, conservationists have begun using satellite technology to monitor the hefty mammals.

According to Britain's Daily Mail newspaper, the high-tech satellites being used in the conservation effort are orbiting 480 miles above the earth. And while they are used in a variety of observation roles, using them to keep track of whales is a bit unusual, the paper said.

Even more amazing is the fact that British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists have developed a way to count how many whales are currently swimming the seas the world over using satellite technology:

The satellites, including the WorldView2, take photos of the sea, which are then studied using state-of-the-art software to identify whales below the surface.

The images are so detailed, each shot uses 2.5GB of computer space - 1,300 times more than the average iPhone photo.

'Whale populations have always been difficult to assess'

BAS scientists say they hope that the new method of tracking and counting the whales will boost efforts to save the endangered mammals.

The team said they chose the WorldView2 satellite, which is owned by DigitalGlobe, because it has a maximum resolution of 50 centimeters. It also has what is known as a "water penetrating coastal band" in the far-blue portion of the camera's spectrum, which means that it has the ability to see deeper into the ocean -- a quality which makes it particularly useful for whale-spotting.

The paper said that BAS has successfully tested the technology to count southern right whales in the Golfo Nuevo, which is located off the coast of Argentina. The team says it hopes to roll out the technology globally in short order.

"Whale populations have always been difficult to assess - traditional means of counting them are localised, expensive and lack accuracy" said Peter Fretwell, who has led the BAS research effort. "The ability to count whales automatically, over large areas in a cost effective way will be of great benefit to conservation efforts."

Precise numbers are not known, but the technology to county whales is improving

At present, a precise count of the world's whale population is not known. However, conservationists have picked up on a disturbing trend: an increase in the number of southern right calves dying.

"The less intrusive we can be when studying wildlife the better - both for their benefit and the accuracy of the data we collect," says Willie MacKenzie, senior oceans advocate from Greenpeace UK, who adds that he welcomes the new technology.

"If this system can be made to work it could be immensely useful in establishing information on whale populations and distribution so that we can better protect them in the future," he said. "In a world where threats to whales such as climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and destructive fishing methods are increasing, this could be a vital new tool.

"Unlike the sham 'scientific' whaling practiced today, which is just commercial whaling in disguise, we welcome whale science that doesn't require explosive harpoons and killing whales," MacKenzie concluded.

The BAS research results have been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. According to an abstract of the study:

Southern right whales have been extensively hunted over the last 300 years and although numbers have recovered from near extinction in the early 20th century, current populations are fragmented and are estimated at only a small fraction of pre-hunting total. ... Using an image covering 113 km2, we identified 55 probable whales and 23 other features that are possibly whales, with a further 13 objects that are only detected by the coastal band. Comparison of a number of classification techniques, to automatically detect whale-like objects, showed that a simple thresholding technique of the panchromatic and coastal band delivered the best results. This is the first successful study using satellite imagery to count whales.





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