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Developing a UAS-Based Approach for Surveying Northern Fur Seals in Alaska

Article and Figures Provided By: Katie Sweeney (AFSC/MML)

Kenneth Vierra 0 8021 Article rating: 4.5

The northern fur seal population in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska has experienced drastic declines. In 2018, St. Paul Island fur seals reached the lowest pup production levels since 1915, while pup abundance in the Pribilof Islands has declined 50 percent since 1998. It is imperative that NOAA Fisheries continue to monitor and document this decline to identify potential threats to recovery and inform management decisions. Currently, population estimates are derived from biennial pup abundance surveys and are conducted on the ground, requiring the participation of more than 20 researchers and support staff for up to 21 days. This method is costly, labor intensive, and involves disturbing the entire population of fur seals on both islands—an estimated 100,000 pups and many more adults and juveniles.

In partnership with the UAS Program Office, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory (MML) is working towards developing a survey approach using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Multi-spectral Imaging of Polar Bears at Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat

Article Provided By: Erin Moreland

Kenneth Vierra 0 2962 Article rating: 5.0

During the first week of April, NOAA researchers from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory (MML) collected multi-spectral imagery of polar bears at the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat in Ontario, Canada. Color, infrared, and ultraviolet photos were collected using two APH-28 hexacopters. This ongoing work was partially funded by the UAS Program. One platform carried the FLIR Duo Pro R camera and the other carried a new UV payload (developed by Ben Hou at MML) paired with a color camera and laser altimeter. This imagery will help improve remote sensing of bears during aerial surveys for ice-associated seals and polar bears on the sea ice habitat of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. The team also collected thermal data of resting bears and bears coming out of cold water to see how these behaviors affect the thermal signature detected from the airborne cameras. Multi-spectral imagery of bears on ice, in open snow fields, and near rocks will be used in the development of an automated bear detection model in support of upcoming international survey efforts of the Beaufort Sea for ice seals and polar bears.  NOAA’s Canadian partners primary focus is bears, so this work also helps build that partnership so we can get more meaningful seal data from the full Beaufort surveys. Polar bears are listed as threatened under the ESA (as are ringed and bearded seals).

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