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Whales Get Help From Drones To Fight Ghost Fishing

Whales Get Help From Drones To Fight Ghost Fishing

Date: 18, June, 2019
Written by: Joana Reis

Whales Get Help From Drones To Fight Ghost Fishing

Ghost fishing is what kills more than 650.000 marine animals each year, including turtles, seals, dolphins and whales. It occurs when fishing gear such as nets and long lines are lost or abandoned by fishermen. Ghost fishing gear travels freely through the ocean currents and along the way they trap, entangle and suffocate any animal that gets too close.
When a whale is trapped by nets and ropes, it can be incapable of swimming, which causes them to starve or drown.
In drones we trust.

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS) and the non-profit Oceans Unmanned started a new project to save whales from entangled fishing nets - using drones. The HIHWNMS's mission says it all, and the Oceans Unmanned's mission is "protecting our oceans and coastal marine environment by facilitating the use of unmanned technologies and promoting their safe and environmentally conscious operation through education and outreach.''


Rescuing a 40-ton marine animal from fishing nets has been hard work, needless to say dangerous. In the past, Oceans Unmanned team had to get close to the whales a minimum of three times. A first time to evaluate the situation and see where the fishing gear is placed on the animal, a second time to cut it, and a third time to verify if the procedure was done properly and nothing was left behind.
Using drones makes the whole process more efficient and safe to the ones involved, rescuers and whales. The need for three or more physical encounters with the animal was substituted by two aerial contacts using the drone - to evaluate the situation at the beginning and end of the rescuing. This leaves only one physical encounter between the rescuers and the whale, to complete their job and set the whale free. 


Each encounter with an animal of such proportions carries high probabilities of someone getting injured. In 2017, the Canadian fisherman Joe Howlett died while freeing a whale from nets and ropes. There are serious and unpredictable risks involved in these rescue missions, and the use of drones can provide a safer process.


As a result, Oceans Unmanned, HIHWNMS, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) developed a program called freeFLY, where volunteers use DJI and DARTdrones to rescue whales from ghost fishing gear. Volunteers living in Maui are supporting this initiative and they will get the equipment and training to control drones, according to the requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration.


By providing a safer method of rescuing whales, the freeFLY program is expected to thrive and discover new ways to decrease ghost fishing in the oceans.

Keywords: ghost fishing, whales, drones


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