Wellington, New Zealand – In 2018, a mackerel skipper mistakenly caught a pod of Māui dolphins in a purse seine off the coast of Taranaki on New Zealand’s North Island.
The fisherman faced a conundrum: While dolphins are among New Zealand’s most endangered, if he let go of the net he would also be breaking the country’s fisheries law and face a substantial fine for releasing his catch.
He decided to save the dolphins. And, in the end, avoided a fine.
The skipper worked for Sanford, New Zealand’s largest seafood company, which holds nearly 20 percent of New Zealand’s fishing quota. For the business, catching a Māui dolphin is one of the worst things that can happen – right after causing serious damage (including death) to an employee at sea.
“The Māui dolphins are a national treasure – our people live on the sea and have a real affinity with the creatures that live there. They have immense respect for the environment, and while they may not be a criminal offense, it would take a heavy emotional toll on a fisherman, ”said Chief Operating Officer Clement Chia.
With only 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 fund and develop a drone capable of finding and tracking Māui dolphins using artificial intelligence.
They hope to collect data on the habitat, population size and behavior of dolphins, which could then be used to inform government policy changes to stop the population decline.
Developed by the nonprofit MĀUI63, the first tests, which began in 2019, show that AI technology can distinguish Māui dolphins from other species with an accuracy of over 90%. Flying at an altitude of 120 meters (393 feet) with a 50x optical zoom camera, the drone can find, track and film for up to six hours.
The first trials began in January 2021. Flights over the next few months will be used to provide insight into mammal habitat and behavior.
The project dates back to 2018, when University of Auckland marine scientist Rochelle Constantine realized that researchers would no longer be able to track dolphins after the sale of a plane used to take annual surveys at the ‘Australia.
“Only 7% of New Zealand is land, the rest is maritime, and yet we are under-equipped to study the ocean. There is only so much money to be made, ”she said.
“In the past, we had highly trained observers on a plane that would go out about once a year and report what they saw. You had to rely on their expertise and their timing. There was also no visual recording if the sightings were questioned.
We have a new resource on endemic New Zealand dolphins – take a closer look at these special marine mammals – and the innovative mahi to follow them through. # MAUI63https://t.co/YcLIl1i2yS#STEMeducation @liviaesterhazy@ WWFNew Zealand @docgovtnz @blakenewzealand pic.twitter.com/xgSD4Bwz4L
– NZ Science Learning Hub (@NZScienceLearn) April 16, 2021
It’s Māui Dolphin Day in Raglan… Māui Drone Project technology is a success! Certainly Māui dolphins + drones are the coolest. Together, the #MauiDroneProject are working to help Māui thrive in Aotearoa, once again! MAUI63 MOANA Sanford Limited Ministry of Primary Industries pic.twitter.com/d32VRKUGaV
– WWF New Zealand (@WWFNewZealand) March 20, 2021
Planes and boats were expensive and inefficient, and neither could collect data during the winter months due to weather conditions. Drones would be cheaper, safer for humans and ecosystems, and – in theory – the data they collect could be more extensive.
Constantine teamed up with tech expert Tane van der Boon and doctor and drone enthusiast Willy Wang, and the MĀUI63 project was born.
Van der Boon says the technology has the potential to collect detailed data on dolphin habitats, population size, distribution and behavior, which can be used for risk modeling and policy making.
Ministry of Primary Industries director of investment programs Steve Penno said the government funded the project because it was an innovative approach to a problem plaguing a national treasury.
“The details of the project, including how the information will be made available, are being worked out by MĀUI63,” he said.
This detailed information has raised concerns that it may be misused or exploited, possibly by fishing or tourism companies for commercial purposes.
Chia from Sanford says the data is of no commercial use and points out that the company has no creative or economic interest in the project.
“For us, the environment is important,” he said. “We don’t want to be the company that catches an endangered animal. It is not good for us and for the industry in terms of reputation and ethics. We want to do better, work sustainably and use the latest technologies. It’s a win-win situation. “
The Māui population was drastically reduced in the 1970s as more people began to use gillnets in shallower water, and dolphins died of suffocation after being trapped in the nets. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that conservationists realized the extent of the decline and discovered that the population was only a few hundred.
Constantine notes that fishing is not the only threat to dolphins.
The greatest risk is death from toxoplasmosis – a parasite found in the stools of cats.
“The parasite can only complete its life cycle through cats – there can be a billion parasitic cysts in a single cat [faeces],” she said.
“The parasite can survive climatic conditions and is virtually indestructible. Once it enters our waterways, it is ingested by fish, which in turn are eaten by dolphins. From there, it is said to cause organ failure and attack the brain.
The parasite also affects humans, where it can cause flu-like symptoms and serious problems for unborn babies.
In 2013, former politician Gareth Morgan made waves internationally by trying, unsuccessfully, to bring the eradication of feral cats into the New Zealand political arena. Despite the potential impact on humans, “it’s no surprise now that there is no longer the political appetite to kill cats,” Constantine said.
Drones can help solve the problem, however.
“It will show the migration patterns of dolphins, where runoff or [the problem areas where Toxoplasma gondii] is located, and where and when there is a significant overlap between the two.
“This data could, if used appropriately, help stop the decline to extinction of the Māui dolphin, and suppose we start using it for other endangered marine animals, it could be a game-changer for the world. conservation, ”Constantine said.
The potential of technology has helped bring together the unprecedented grouping of civil society, science and government.
WWF New Zealand CEO Livia Esterhazy said each side may have competing interests, but the data will move the country forward.
“Conservation is often overlooked. The time it takes to consult or try to determine the best approach is when these animals become more endangered. “Business as usual” is no longer an option, “she said.
“Our vision is that people live in harmony with nature. We want to make sure that these precious creatures are protected, but we also want to make sure that people can continue to fish, within limits that ensure a sustainable environment. We can all sit in different camps, but this data will move us forward. It’s incredibly exciting.