It's not a small problem, experts say.
From mapping coral to delivering medical supplies, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are proving to be good for all sorts of tricky tasks. Now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has teamed up with a California-based nonprofit to see if drones can help save the lives of whales that have become entangled in fishing gear.
It's not a small problem. Each year more than 300,000 cetaceans, including whales and dolphins, sustain injuries or die after getting caught up in crab trap ropes, discarded fishing nets and other plastic debris from commercial fishing operations. Humpback whales and right whales are especially vulnerable because of their protruding pectoral fins.
NOAA has a longstanding program to free entangled humpbacks in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary as well as in other waters where the animals live. In its new partnership with the nonprofit, Oceans Unmanned of Santa Barbara, California, the agency will use video camera-equipped quadcopters to make the program more effective and safer for the animals and the humans trying to save them.
"The response program [at NOAA] has been dialed in, and they have methods that they've been using for years," said Matt Pickett, president of Oceans Unmanned. "Now, we're trying to figure out the best way to utilize this technology."
Entangled whales are often in pain, making them dangerous to approach. "Imagine a rope wrapped through your mouth cutting through your cheeks," Alicia Amerson, a San Diego-based marine biologist and drone pilot, told NBC News MACH in an email. "As you try to squirm out, the rope more gets caught around your fins, sometimes cutting them entirely off. You can't eat and slowly get dehydrated and famished."
Given their desperate situation, it's not hard to imagine how entangled whales can jeopardize the safety of rescue crews, who use small boats to get close enough to the animals to cut away the debris using bladed poles. Last year, NOAA temporarily suspended its response efforts after a right whale struck and killed a rescuer.
Under the new initiative, known as the freeFLY drone program, remote-control drones will fly over entangled whales, beaming live video of each animal and the precise nature of the entanglement to crews aboard rescue boats. Using this information, the crews should be able to plan exactly how and where to make the necessary cuts before they move alongside distressed whales.
Pickett said his group and NOAA are now "gearing up" and hope to implement the program this fall, when humpbacks begin their annual migration to Hawaii from Alaskan waters. If all goes well, he said, the program will expand to Alaska and the West Coast of the U.S. by next year.
But even if the freeFLY program works as expected, it's only one step toward solving the entanglement problem. "The response effort and drones are a band-aid to the larger entanglement issue," Amerson said. "The solution is to not have any whales become entangled in gear in the first place."
Amerson said whale-friendly innovations in fishing technology, including fishing gear made with weaker material, can help. One recent study showed that gear made with ropes weak enough for large whales to break could reduce entanglements by 70 percent.
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