Amanda Maxwell

Jun 26th 2018

Tech to the Rescue for Endangered Marine Animals


This spring, the North Atlantic right whale population showed no new calves. This stark reminder of endangered marine animals follows the dramatic increase in whale mortality recorded the previous year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Extinction is looking more likely — possibly in the next 20 years — for these marine giants, National Geographic reported. Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, according to Science, the Emperor penguin may disappear by the year 2100.

Climate Change Sets the Table

So, what do these endangered marine animals have in common that puts them under threat? Climate change is dramatically impacting the habitats of both species. They depend on cool ocean temperatures, and, as the planet warms, so does the water covering 71 percent of its surface, affecting food and habitat.

Data from NASA satellites show that less ice forms each year, especially in the Arctic, where the floating pack is more vulnerable than land-based Antarctic ice. In addition to habitat, sea ice is important for growing food. Marine algae on its margins are food for the krill, copepods and fish that both penguin and North Atlantic right whale depend on.

Warming also moves the buffet, added NASA. Krill and copepods are less bountiful, so diners travel further for a full belly. The North Atlantic right whales are moving further northwards to feed; Emperor penguins take longer to reach food, spending energy and time away from the nest during vulnerable breeding seasons.

It’s not only animals following the food. Pacific Standard reported that sea ice recession has opened up more shipping routes into the Arctic. Not only do fishing boats compete with marine animals for fish, but they also present new hazards. Many of the dead North Atlantic right whales showed signs of collision trauma, suggesting that busier shipping lanes are dangerous for slow-moving whales.

Technology to the Rescue

Tech innovation could help conservationists learn more about endangered marine animals and take steps to protect them.

Projects like Operation #PolarEye, where autonomous drones capture sea ice and habitat data, help document environmental changes and monitor vulnerable populations. Drones operate at heights that capture a broad view without disturbing normal behavior, giving researchers more insight into how animals adapt to climate change.

From further away, satellite imagery also helps. The Conversation reported how researchers saw changes in nesting behavior with Emperor penguins moving from sea to shelf ice during the nesting season. Space tech could also help keep tabs on individuals; National Geographic described how researchers adapted a NASA algorithm for identifying star clusters to track whale sharks by skin spots.

Cameras give an even more intimate look into the lives of endangered animals. CBS News showed how penguin cams give researchers more insight into daily life, while the U.S. Geological Survey stays safe by gathering behavioral data via polar bear cam.

Ships Pose Threat to Marine Life

Apart from speed restrictions in busy shipping areas, The Globe and Mail reported that plotting whale locations using hydrophones for acoustic monitoring and thermal imaging from aerial surveillance could soon feed into early alert systems for ships.

The Globe and Mail also noted that entanglement with fishing gear accounted for 82 percent of whale deaths between 2010 and 2014, while The Conversation added that superfine filament nets trap and drown many diving birds. A paper in Conservation Biology suggested that whales could escape from weaker, breakaway lines.

Biodegradable gear is another tactic, but rope-free could reduce the danger further; companies like Ashored Innovations are developing remote solutions to replace the line between fishing gear and the surface. Fishing vessels could soon keep track of lobster traps and other gear with devices that monitor location or let them know when a trap is full. There’s also acoustic technology to bring traps safely to the surface by triggering a release mechanism.

Tech doesn’t have to just be about innovation for innovation’s sake; it can also protect.