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Thermal imaging 'may help save endangered NZ dolphins'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Dolphins, seals and seabirds, as well as whales can be detected and distinguished using thermal imaging technology, opening up new areas of their study and offering greater protection from human threat, two recent scientific studies have suggested.

These conclusions follow results of a study on the use of thermal imaging technology to detect Bryde’s whales in the Hauraki Gulf, announced in a joint media release by Ports of Auckland and consultant scientist Martin Stanley (Ocean Life Survey) last month, and a further 2015 study by Martin Stanley (Ocean Life Survey) focused on the thermal detection of seal species. "The results from these two studies have shown we can thermally detect and identify between whales, dolphins, seals, and seabirds in real time both day and night.

These findings suggest thermal imaging may not only be used to help prevent ship collisions with whales, but may also be used to help prevent dolphins and seals being killed in fisheries bycatch, and therefore could provide greater protection to endangered New Zealand marine mammal species including Maui's and Hector's dolphins, and the New Zealand Sea Lion" says Stanley.

"Thermal imaging as well as aiding in the direct protection of marine mammal species from ship strike, fisheries bycatch, and disturbance from other marine operations, will also enable further scientific study of the surface behaviour of whales, dolphins and seals, and seabird activity at night, when our normal visual view is cloaked by darkness. This will help scientists to better understand the nocturnal behaviour of marine mammal and seabird species, and in turn further their future conservation and protection" continues Stanley.

The initial study led by Martin Stanley, was driven by a need to reduce Bryde’s whale deaths from ship strike in the Hauraki Gulf. It set out to primarily test and explore whether thermal imaging could be used to successfully detect large whales from a vessel in real time both night and day, and at distances that would allow a large commercial ship to thermally "see" a whale ahead, with enough time and space to safely alter course avoiding the potential risk of collision with a whale.

A secondary component of the study was to see if smaller cetacean species, including dolphins, could be detected and identified by the same thermal imaging technology. Ports of Auckland Chief Executive Tony Gibson says "By finding a way for vessels to spot and identify dolphins and seabirds in addition to whales, the findings of the research study could have significant benefit to the conservation of whales and dolphin species. We are pleased that the research POAL has supported may not only help ships to avoid whales but may also aid with the protection and conservation of other New Zealand marine mammal species".

The study was carried out with support of Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari aboard their vessel Dolphin Explorer.

Subsequent research initiated and undertaken by Martin Stanley has proved thermal detection of seal species is also possible.

"The confirmation that we can also thermally detect seal species, means the potential protection offered to dolphin species, can similarly be applied to seal species as well. This could be significant to the endangered New Zealand Sea Lion, which is also under threat from accidental death in fisheries by-catch" says Stanley.

"The next stage of this work in New Zealand is to seek support from the New Zealand Department of Conservation and Ministry of Primary Industries, to work together with me to test the proven methodology and thermal detection equipment on these endangered species, and then trial and put in place a practical system design which can provide increased protection to the endangered Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins, and New Zealand Sea Lion. I hope both government departments will support this work and engage with me to help deliver a workable protection system" concludes Stanley. The thermal detection work is a component of a series of marine mammal technological detection methods investigated and tested by scientist Martin Stanley (Ocean Life Survey) from 2013 to 2015.

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