USA: Scientists from Russia and the USA announced that they will use high resolution photographs and thermal sensors in a project to count ice seals in the Bering Sea, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recommended for listing as a threatened species due to climate warming. The agency is conducting a status review of a third ice-dependent species, the ribbon seal, and will also count spotted seals, a species it rejected for listing three years ago.
Scientists hope to obtain significant results by combining thermal imaging with high-resolution photographs. “The most novel thing about the survey is the pairing of two devices that have already been used to survey other marine mammals,” said Peter Boveng of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.
The two aircraft picked for the project will fly at 1,000 feet, which is too high for the human eye to distinguish the seals. The thermal sensors, Boveng said, will locate the animals. The high-resolution cameras will take images to be analysed in a lab.
“Thermal or infrared cameras are good at detecting seals on ice, which are very warm relative to their surroundings, but not good at revealing the species of seals,” Boveng added. “High-resolution digital photos are good for species identification, but very labour intensive for detecting and counting seals.”
He stated putting the two technologies together creates a more efficient system in which the thermal camera finds the seals and the photo camera allows identification of species.
The survey will be conducted into May and plans call for flying nearly 19,000 nautical miles over US waters and 11,000 nautical miles over Russian waters, making it the largest-ever seal survey in the Bering Sea.
The first flights will begin from Nome. Five- to seven-hour survey flights also will originate in Bethel and Dillingham in southwest Alaska and St. Paul Island, the largest of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.