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Geographer uses technology to protect marine life

Thailand: A geographer in Thailand has successfully used GIS (geographic information systems) to estimate the number of marine mammals in specific populations and thus evolve ways to protect some of the rare marine species.

Associate Professor of Geography Ellen Hines conducts her field work in the Gulf of Thailand and helps fishermen, scientists and policymakers discover a great deal about the vulnerable marine life that exists locally.

“If you don’t know how many animals there are or where they prefer to live, it’s difficult to conserve and manage those populations,” said Hines. “You don’t know what’s at stake.”

Hines has studied dolphins, whales, porpoises and unusual sea creatures such as dugongs (sea cows) off the coast of Thailand for the last twelve years.

Her latest project, in the eastern Gulf of Thailand, focuses on a blunt-nosed animal called the Irrawaddy dolphin. The species is believed to be threatened by accidental capture — known as bycatch — in commercial fishing nets and by coastal development. “When we began our work here, fishermen told us they had seen them but no one knew how many,” Hines said.

Hines and her team conduct surveys using local fishing boats. For each survey, they sail a randomly generated route across the eastern Gulf of Thailand, repeating the route 3-4 times. Along the way, a team of observers continuously scans the horizon with the naked eye, and with binoculars, recording the number of animals seen per kilometre and estimating the exact angle of the sighting and the distance from the boat. The data is captured on GPS devices and is used to calculate statistically viable estimates of the total number of animals in the local population.

The results will inform local and national conservation management efforts. Hines and her graduate students will also use the data for habitat modelling. Using GIS database and mapping technology, they will map dolphin sightings against such variables as sea surface temperature and salinity.

Source: SF State News