The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary recently announced the successful digital acoustic tagging of 14 sei whales in waters offshore Massachusetts. This is the first time researchers have successfully tagged an endangered species in the United States using an un-crewed aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone.
The collected data will shed light on the whales’ acoustic behavior, which researchers will use to inform mitigation strategies — including passive acoustic monitoring — to protect this endangered species from the potential impacts of offshore wind-energy activities. “BOEM is pleased to be able to fund this important research. Our Environmental Studies Program looks for innovative solutions to resource management challenges,” said Jacob Levenson, BOEM marine biologist. “Using UAVs allows scientists to collect data in a way that is safer for both the whales and researchers.”
Very little is known about the sei whale, one of the most endangered large whales in the North Atlantic. Understanding how the whales behave and use their habitat is critical for BOEM to assess potential impacts resulting from bureau-permitted offshore activities and ensure responsible offshore wind energy development.
Digital acoustic tagging is a component of a larger BOEM study to address gaps in information on a variety of endangered large whale species — including sei, North Atlantic right, and fin whales — to better inform offshore wind-energy area selection.
UAVs enable researchers to target specific animals in a group or conduct multi-group taggings, and the collected data will also aid in conservation efforts. “The use of UAVs to tag whales is the first major innovation related to attaching tags to whales,” said Dr. David Wiley, research ecologist at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Wiley has used various suction cup-based, computer-equipped tags to study the underwater behavior of whales for almost 30 years.
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