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Monitoring negative anthropogenic effects on the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and evaluating current regulations and management strategies is essential in order to reduce potential contributing factors to the decline in population survival of this species. Since 2002, a systematic research effort lead by William Lange and Eryn Wezensky from the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Brian Hopper from NOAA Fisheries', and Dave Wiley from the SBNMS in collaboration with Fuji Film U.S.A. Inc. has employed high performance digital imaging capabilities with the use of the Fuji Airship as an aerial monitoring platform.

The goals for the development and use of HD imagery were designed with the collaboration of numerous organizations, including the SBNMS and NOAA Fisheries. One of NOAA Fisheries' mandates is to implement fishery management measures that reduce the potential for entanglement of protected species and eventually prevent all entanglements. Until that time, disentanglement is a valuable mitigation measure. The primary concern was to improve the assessment of entangled marine mammals by gaining more thorough knowledge of an animal's situation.

Throughout 2005, three separate whale entanglements were documented by the assistance of the Fuji Airship and HDTV digital video. Findings to date indicate that HDTV imaging has the potential to surpass standard aerial documentation methods, such as 35 mm still photographs from airplanes. Conventional 35mm and digital still imagery is limited in allowing the interpretability of scars and lesions, due to the interactions of waves and light refraction of a surfaced animal. The optical time series data obtained using HDTV motion imagery allows frame-by-frame analysis and feature extraction, which has led to a better understanding of the condition and behavior of entangled animals. Time series imaging proved more valuable in assessing the behavior of the whale to determine the best strategy for disentanglement. Due to the improved sight-ability and ability to maintain a relatively stationary position near endangered whales, flights in the Fuji Airship proved far superior to airplanes in providing direction and assistance from the airship team to ship-based rescuers.


Figure 1. Detailed HDTV image of a North Atlantic right whale while feeding. This image was taken from an altitude of 1,200 feet off Cape Cod. Time series images of this type allow for a better understanding of feeding behavior and flow dynamics. Imagery collected under ESA Permit # 775-1600-8, copyright Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


Figure 2. A still image from HD video of an entangled right whale. This imagery was taken while providing aerial support aboard the Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. Airship for the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies Disentanglement Team in Florida in January 2005. Imagery collected under ESA Permit # 775-1600-8, copyright Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
In addition to the documentation of entanglements, the research group has defined two other potential projects for the use of HD imagery.

Skin/Body Condition and Photo ID
HDTV imagery taken from directly overhead of the animals combined with precision altimetry allows for measurement of body size and shape. Additionally, the multi-camera, multi-angle HD imaging systems on the Fuji Airship provided photo-identification and assessment of body condition through imagery of scars and skin lesions. In some cases we collected photogrammetric stereo image pair suitable for measurement feature extraction. During the same time frame as the photogrammetric effort, longer time-series observations of right whale feeding and surfacing behavior were conducted. The images consistently show good quality detail on the skin texture and body shape from an oblique aerial perspective. These images will be useful in assessment of individual health and behavior, when used in conjunction with imagery collected from surface behaviors of the same animal to create an overall assessment of the animal's wellbeing. Imagery of right whales from these airship surveys is being provided to the New England Aquarium for incorporation into the marine mammal photo identification databases.


Figure 3. A full body shot of a North Atlantic right whale taken from the handheld HD camera. These shots will be reviewed and submitted to the New England Aquarium to enhance the current, photo ID catalog. Imagery collected under ESA Permit # 775-1600-8, copyright Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Interaction with Whale Watching Boats, Recreational Boats and Large Vessels
Vessel traffic continues to be a major concern for the conservation of endangered marine mammals. In collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders, NOAA Fisheries and the SBNMS have established guidelines for commercial and recreational whale watching to promote responsible marine wildlife viewing by recommending specific operational procedures for vessels engaged in whale watching. In addition, determining the impact of commercial ships on the behavior of baleen whales is essential in order to avoid future ship strikes. To assess the ship strike concern and the degree of compliance with the whale watching guidelines, automatic object tracking software was used to analyze imagery collected with the HD imaging systems. Each whale of interest was tracked by centering it as an object in the range markers. Range markers represent range in feet, the smaller circle representing a 100-foot radius circle and the larger circle representing a 300-foot circle (Figure 3). Data analysis of baleen whale movements in and around shipping lanes has provided insight on the frequency of surface activity within close proximity of large vessel passage. This technique documented cetacean behavior near large vessels and smaller recreational boats, thereby providing invaluable assistance to NOAA in determining whether the current guidelines are sufficiently protecting large whales or is in need of revision.


Figure 4. A wide angle HD image taken from a mounted, down-looking HD camera. Using this vantage point, we can monitor the movements and interactions of whales and vessels in and around each other. The image has been orthorectified and scaled in order to accurately assess distances between whales and small vessels. Imagery collected under ESA Permit # 775-1600-8, copyright Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

With the effective application of this pilot study and valuable potential for a multi-year effort, the development and analysis effort will continue to provide high quality data to the marine mammal community and contribute to managing the reduction of protected species mortalities. Funding for this research was provided by Fuji Film U.S.A. Inc., Fujinon U.S.A. Inc., Fuji Japan, Sony Electronics U.S.A., the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.





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