On June 8, 2022, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary announced the successful use of an uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone), to deploy digital acoustic tags on 14 sei whales in the Northeast Atlantic. This marked a major innovation in tag deployment and was the first-time drones were used to successfully tag an endangered species in U.S. waters.

An uncrewed aerial system (UAS or drone) attaches a suction cup equipped, biologging tag to the mother of a mother/calf sei whale pair. The tag delivery device, specially developed by Ocean Alliance, can be seen falling away, while tag remains attached to the whale. The non-disruptive nature of the UAS tagging technique is evidenced by the mother’s mouth open feeding immediately following tag attachment. Video credit: Chris Zedra, Ocean Alliance, permit #18786-06 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Passive acoustic recording tags allow scientists to essentially accompany a whale or other marine animal while it is underwater and observe natural behaviors otherwise hidden at depth. Since their advent in the mid-1990’s, acoustic recording tags have advanced significantly and have been deployed on many marine species. The tags can be attached with a long pole (or now deployed via drone) and affixed via suction cups; shot from a gun or crossbow to be embedded in the skin or blubber layer of the target animal; or they can be glued directly onto an animal’s body.

Data gathered by acoustic tags are critical in understanding the behavior and ecology of many marine species, including sei whales. These whales are one of largest baleen whale species and one of the most endangered large whales in the North Atlantic. Understanding sei whale behavior and habitat use is critical for informing management decisions, mitigation strategies, and impact assessments, especially with regards to activities such as offshore wind area selection and development.

UAV technologies offer a novel, non-invasive, and often cost-effective option for observing and monitoring marine species in the wild. Drone-based research applications include aerial surveys, abundance estimates, behavioral observations, health assessments, and biological sampling. The drone-based acoustic tag deployments described here are part of a larger research program to address data gaps for a variety of endangered, large whale species in the North Atlantic.

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Additional Resources

References

  • Frouin-Mouy, H., Tenorio-Hallé, L., Thode, A., Swartz, S., & Urbán, J. (2020). Using two drones to simultaneously monitor visual and acoustic behaviour of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in Baja California, Mexico. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 525, 151321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jembe.2020.151321.
  • Hodgson, J. C., & Koh, L. P. (2016). Best practice for minimising unmanned aerial vehicle disturbance to wildlife in biological field research. Current Biology, 26(10), R404–R405. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.001.
  • Wirsing, A. J., Johnston, A. N., & Kiszka, J. J. (2022). Foreword to the Special Issue on ‘The rapidly expanding role of drones as a tool for wildlife research.’ Wildlife Research, 49(1), i–v. https://doi.org/10.1071/WR22006.