Biodiversity: Counting whales — from space

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New satellite technology could help biologists getter more accurate estimates of whale populations  NOAA photo.

New method could help with marine mammal conservation planning

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — After using satellite images to discover new emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey said they’ve also been able to use similar technology to count whales.

Marine mammals are extremely difficult to count on a large scale and traditional methods, such as counting from platforms or land, can be costly and inefficient, so the new method could lead to breakthroughs in estimating populations of whales and other marine mammals.

“This is a proof of concept study that proves whales can be identified and counted by satellite,” said lead author Peter Fretwell from the British Antarctic Survey. “Whale populations have always been difficult to assess; traditional means of counting them are localized, expensive and lack accuracy. The ability to count whales automatically, over large areas in a cost effective way will be of great benefit to conservation efforts for this and potentially other whale species.”

Previously, satellites have provided limited success in counting whales but their accuracy has improved in recent years.

The BAS team used a single WorldView2 satellite image of a bay where southern right whales gather to calve and mate. Driven to near extinction, these whales have made a limited recovery following the end of whaling. In recent years, however, many deaths have been seen on their nursery grounds at Peninsula Valdes. Their population size is now unknown but with this sharp increase in calf mortality, estimates are needed.

The enclosed bays in this region contain calm, shallow waters which increase the chance of spotting the whales from space. Three main criteria were used to identify whales: objects visible in the image should be the right size and shape; they should be in the right place (where whales would be expected to be) and there should be no (or few) other types of objects that could be mistaken as whales.

Whales in the image were manually identified and counted, finding 55 probable whales, 23 possible whales and 13 sub-surface features. Several automated methods where then tested against these numbers.

A ‘thresholding’ of the Coastal Band of the WorldView2 image gave the greatest accuracy. This part of the image uses light from the far blue end of the spectrum which penetrates the water column deeper and allows us to see more whales. This technique found 89 percent of probable whales identified in the manual count. This is a semi-automated technique that needs some user input to identify the best threshold.

Future satellite platforms will provide even high quality imagery and Worldview3 is planned to be launched this year. This will allow for greater confidence in identifying whales and differentiating mother and calf pairs. Such technological advancements may also allow scientists to apply this method to other whale species.

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