Technology holds the key to better whale detection

Article published in The Regulator | Issue 3: 2020 

NOPSEMA and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment have announced a new challenge to develop new ship-borne technology to automate the detection, location, and measurement of whales at sea.

Up to $2.4 million in funding will be made available by Australian Government’s Business Research and Innovation Initiative (BRII) to solve this challenge. Through the BRII process, businesses are invited to respond to challenges identified by Government agencies and independent bodies such as NOPSEMA, with ideas for innovative solutions.

NOPSEMA believes such technology will serve to improve confidence in the management of seismic surveys and protection of whales, an outcome with benefits for the environment, communities, industry and government. The challenge highlights the opportunity to improve whale detection systems for use during seismic surveys. Current mitigation measures use marine mammal observers and other techniques on board seismic vessels to visually or acoustically detect and identify whales and to implement mitigation measures to prevent harm. However, limitations with the existing techniques mean that companies may be restricted in operating at certain times or in certain locations to ensure that whales are not harmed.

This technology would help to provide further real-time information to support the work of the marine mammal observers, allow seismic companies to better manage their surveys and provide high quality data for researchers and regulators to improve our understanding of the spatial distribution and behaviour of whales.

AAD’s interest in the challenge is the acquisition of a valuable, new, near-autonomous data stream about whales in the Southern Ocean for Australia’s new icebreaker RSV Nuyina. NOPSEMA chose the AAD as their partner in managing this challenge for their technical expertise in:

  • whale biology;
  • formal marine mammal sightings surveys;
  • passive acoustics and other detection methods; and
  • human impacts on whales.

Additionally, the AAD currently receives and manages all Marine Mammal Observer data from seismic survey vessels operating in Australian waters.

There are limited historical and few ongoing sources of information about the distribution and abundance of whales in Australian waters. Additional sources of information are vital for enhanced understanding of the recovery, distribution and status of whales around Australia to inform environmental impact assessment for industry exploration activities and regulatory decision-making.

Improved understanding about the distribution and behaviour of whales would improve seismic survey planning to better avoid biologically important habitats when whales are likely to be present, thereby reducing the number of costly seismic vessel shut downs needed to prevent harm to whales. 

NOPSEMA’s challenge highlights recent advances in artificial intelligence image processing to detect and record whale encounters. Examples include the application of a bespoke scientific system that used thermal imaging and artificial intelligence to detect marine mammals. In an experimental trial the system recorded about twice as many whale encounters compared to human marine mammal observers. Not only was the system better at detecting whales, but digital imaging technology proved to yield more accurate measures of distance to the whales than estimates made by human observers. However, automated whale detection systems are currently not commercially available in Australia or internationally, and this potentially limits the efficiency and effectiveness of marine mammal observations and technologies to complement them.

NOPSEMA’s challenge asks companies to consider additional technologies to provide vessel based, automated, real-time, round-the-clock, accurate detection and identification of marine mammals at sea with accurate distance estimation to inform the implementation of mitigation measures. Solutions would also need to consider how such technology could be deployed on seismic, commercial and research vessels. Secondly, the challenge requires proponents to consider how automated marine mammal detection data and subsequent management actions can be more effectively collated and reported back to DAWE’s National Marine Mammal Database. Ideally greater visibility of sighting location data to different audiences will enable meaningful application to environmental impact assessment, research and species conservation.

A video explaining NOPSEMA’s BRII challenge has been published on the NOPSEMA website: nopsema.gov.au