Innovative techniques

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The conservation and management of many marine mammal species is dependent on monitoring their population status and habitat use. This is often mandated in legislation, such as in the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 which requires an annual stock assessment of all marine mammal species in US waters.

Similarly, the International Whaling Commission and the IUCN require periodic status assessments of many marine mammal species for a global understanding of species conservation and recovery. In Australia, many Environmental Impact Assessments require an understanding of the abundance and distribution of marine mammal species in order to determine potential impacts of developments. This information is typically obtained by conducting standardised surveys using human observer effort (manned surveys)

However, not all species are easily identifiable during standard manned surveys (i.e. are cryptic in nature) and not all human observers have the same probability of observing an animal. Manned surveys can also be considerably costly to undertake, particularly in remote areas. There is a need to extend our approach to marine mammal surveys by investigating innovative techniques to improve methodology. Two main areas that research is currently being undertaken is in the use of UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and PAM (Passive Acoustic Monitoring) for obtaining population abundance estimates and information about habitat use.

Recent developments in the technical capacity and civilian use of UAVs (defined as vehicles flying without a human pilot on board) have led to some investigations into the potential use of these systems for aerial surveys of marine mammals. MUCRU researcher Amanda Hodgson is leading a project to determine whether UAVs can reduce cost, eliminate human risk and provide more accurate survey data.

Current research on PAM is aimed at determining whether this technology can be used to obtain absolute abundance estimates using conventional population estimation statistics. MUCRU researcher Josh Smith is leading a project to enhance the usefulness of PAM beyond presence/absence of a species, with the view that PAM can potentially produce more accurate detection rates than manned visual surveys when the target species is cryptic or occur low densities.


Read more about these projects here:

Relevant lab publications:

Hodgson A, Kelly N, Peel D (2013) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for Surveying Marine Fauna: A Dugong Case Study. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79556. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079556.

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