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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

Detecting, Monitoring, and Protecting Marine Megafauna with Tip and Cue Satellites

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

"Below, we explain how governments, marine conservationists, researchers, and educational organizations can use Tip and Cue strategies to support marine megafauna conservation and provide a more hopeful future for the world’s oceans and marine animals. "

Over the past decades, the world’s oceans have been put under severe pressure through human activity and natural processes, and everything from coral reefs to the most significant megafauna is suffering. Numerous species of whales have had a particularly difficult time existing in our continuously changing environment, and humans have been responsible for a grotesque amount of their downfall.


Whales play a crucial role in our marine ecosystems, supporting the health and production of marine phytoplankton, which are responsible for about 50% of the oxygen we breathe every day. Phytoplankton also helps combat climate change by taking in atmospheric carbon and using it for photosynthesis, reducing the amount of free carbon in the air by hundreds of thousands of tons annually.


As the base of the ocean food web, phytoplankton remains one of the first lines of defense against environmental degradation, and whales are vital in ensuring their health and production.


Until 1986, when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling, humans hunted whales in such massive numbers that many species were driven close to extinction. Even after the international whaling ban in 1986, countries like Iceland, Norway, and Japan continue to hunt whales commercially - rejecting the whaling moratorium altogether.


In fact, the three countries have killed over 40,000 large whales since the whaling ban, and those estimates may be far more conservative than the reality.


Still, it’s not just whaling that’s putting our important marine megafauna at risk. Every year, whales and other marine megafauna die from entanglement in fishing nets, ecosystem changes resulting from climate change, impacts with large ships, oil and gas spills, habitat degradation, and toxic contamination from shipping accidents and cargo spills.


To protect the world’s marine megafauna from further destruction and potential extinction, we must begin to utilize the technologies and resources available to us.


Among the most effective and efficient solutions?

Earth Observation strategies like Tip and Cue monitoring, which uses a combination of human inputs, low-resolution satellites, high-resolution satellites, AI detection algorithms, and open-source information to monitor places and objects of interest.


Below, we explain how governments, marine conservationists, researchers, and educational organizations can use Tip and Cue monitoring to support marine megafauna conservation and provide a more hopeful future for the world’s oceans and marine animals.



How Tip and Cueing Can Be Used for Megafauna Detection and Monitoring


Satellites with Tip and Cue technology are highly useful in detecting relatively small objects within a large area of interest.


Since small satellites with high-resolution sensors are costly to operate, have a lower field of view, and generally result in a higher amount of time needed to detect objects of interest, employing satellites with low to medium-resolution sensors with a wider field of view first can provide a stepwise strategy that helps reduce both the time and costs of monitoring.


When a user can identify a “rough” area of interest - like when a whale sighting has been reported to conservation organizations - medium to high-resolution satellites can be tasked to take imagery in the area with the hopes of identifying the whales.


Alternatively, low to medium–resolution satellites can be deployed to survey the considerably large area. Since the field of view of these sensors is so vast, the imagery returned from the satellites can be used to identify potential objects of interest within the scope (i.e., whales near the ocean’s surface), oftentimes using AI detection algorithms rather than the human eye.


Once the initial imagery is used to identify objects of potential interest, other high-resolution satellites are ‘Tipped’ to observe and return data on that point or object of interest.


The high-resolution imagery returned from these satellites is so clear that users can identify the objects in the water and make informed decisions on how to proceed.


For example, if a group of humpback whales was successfully identified along a known migratory pattern, users could employ satellites to follow the trajectory to better understand their movements - ultimately helping researchers, policymakers, and marine conservationists strategize on how to protect those marine mammals in the future.


Alternatively, prediction models can be used to make a "best guess" on the trajectory of the whales, which can be used to alert large vessels and/or crews operating in the area and better protect the animals.


Knowing how these megafauna act, especially in response to human pressures, is imperative in developing approaches to better protect them.


With Tip and Cue monitoring, users can conduct baseline studies on certain megafauna species, run population assessments, make environmental impact assessments for human-based activities concerning marine mammals, and so on.


The data delivered from Tip and Cueing gives those with interest much deeper insights into species and populations of megafauna - in turn providing a stronger probability of successful conservation efforts.



Tip and Cue Projects Underway for Marine Megafauna Conservation


While Tip and Cueing is a relatively new strategy for earth observation, there are nearly endless applications for practically every earth-bound domain.


And while Tip and Cueing is the perfect pairing for marine conservation efforts, it is used far more often to detect and monitor dark ships, monitor illegal fishing, enforce sanctions compliance, and enhance maritime awareness and national security. Still, marine conservation, particularly the conservation of marine megafauna, is highly beneficial to the world, and numerous organizations have already begun taking advantage of the relatively new opportunities.


Below are a couple of examples of programs that have used or are using some variation of tip and cue strategies for marine megafauna conservation.


SPACEWHALE & SPACEWHALE 2


The SPACEWHALE demonstration projects are now completed, but both used high-resolution satellites and the SPACEWHALE algorithm to detect and monitor whales from space over several thousand square kilometers of ocean. The programs aim to gain insight into the presence or absence of large whales, as well as their population numbers, movements, and distribution patterns in areas of interest.


The programs used earth observation strategies to support their ship and acoustic-based monitoring at sea, which helped researchers develop a much broader picture of what was happening in different areas of the ocean - particularly those that are hard to access or provide resources to.


The service is a perfect match for research organizations, academic institutions, and private companies (i.e., oil and gas companies) looking to carry out research, develop policies, create impact assessments, and so on. The service delivers data on the presence or absence of megafauna, their distribution, migratory patterns, and more - which can be used to do anything from develop a baseline for research to develop an impact assessment for oil and gas operations at sea.


Space Whales and Arctic Marine Mammals (SWAMM)


The SWAMM program was developed to monitor marine mammal populations in the Arctic, including two populations of Beluga Whales, using satellite imagery from LEO satellites. The program’s focus was primarily to assess the populations and distribution of Beluga populations, as the abundance data of these populations were last estimated in the late 1990s.


Results from the program were successful in providing density estimates rather than abundance estimates, as the resolution of the imagery wasn’t high enough. However, this is still a win, as there is little to no other recent population data on Beluga whales in the Arctic.


The SWAMM program is also looking into new ways to enhance the capabilities of the program with higher-resolution satellites, which could prove useful in also measuring the densities of walruses.



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