Beyond the Pelagos storyline

Bénédicte Madon, UBO, FR

Under the framework of the ECOPOTENTIAL H2020 project, the University of Bretagne Occidental – UBO  team (Linwood Pendleton, Bénédicte Madon, Cécile Nys) hosted a 2-day meeting (16-18 orct 2018) to launch a collaboration and develop a spin off project of the Pelagos storyline. The aim was to go beyond the current ECOPOTENTIAL project by building on ECOPOTENTIAL foundations and the Pelagos storyline outcomes to incorporate new kinds of remote sensing data and develop new ways of detecting whales from ships in efforts to protect them from collisions.

Among the protected areas ECOPOTENTIAL focuses on, the Mediterranean Sea is home to many species of whales and dolphins, which now have to share their habitat with human activities: maritime transport, military exercises, oil and gas exploration, tourism, boating, recreational activities and commercial fishing.

While underwater-noise-pollution is of growing concern for whales, another scourge has arisen in the last decades: ship strike, which is now considered as the main threat to whales. As human populations continue to grow, the magnitude of collision events between ships and whales is projected to rise if no effective mitigation measure is implemented. In this context, the ECOOTENTIAL Pelagos storyline focuses on combining satellite imagery, in-situ observations and ecological modelling with information from whale-watching operators and shipping. Until a few years ago, monitoring individual animals from satellites was not even conceivable. ECOPOTENTIAL is applying very high-resolution satellite imagery to find fin whales from space. This imagery is combined with ecological modelling, shipping traffic data and whale-human pressure to build a more complete picture of where whales are located and where the risks (e.g. from shipping) are greatest.

However, understanding, detecting and then predicting, when, where and how ship strikes occur are not simple tasks, but the variety of data sources to help answer those questions is growing. So are the technological advances and solutions, and real-time, high-resolution maps forecasting the risks of collision bear the potential for being the most effective mitigation tool yet to come.

The final step in the development of the Pelagos storyline aims at using machine learning and data assimilation techniques to fill each cell of a data-cube to produce real-time and predictive maps of encounter probability with whales designed in a way to be integrated into shipboard navigation software.

This 2-day meeting brought together field experts from the Mediterranean Sea, Tech experts and the ECOPOTENTIAL team working on the Pelagos storyline to discuss potential synergies and paths of collaboration after the ECOPOTENTIAL project ends. The meeting focused on finding and highlighting common grounds for future collaboration to improve/develop anti-collision tools. The ECOPOTENTIAL team, field experts from the Mediterranean Sea and big data-AI scientists in Brest shared knowledge and experience during round-tables and focus groups and discussed ways to advance and develop current whale detection and anti-collision tools. A tech corner session aimed at presenting some available technological solutions that could be used in detecting and avoiding whales: this ranged from operational software such as REPCET, VISIR ship routing model, automatisation tools for detecting whales on VHR satellite imagery to passive acoustic and environmental DNA solutions for better monitoring.

During the round-table following the tech corner, four main areas were addressed by the discussion:

1. Review of existing projects and activities (DETECT, Sustainable Ocean Summit 2017, IMO

COLREG, STM Validation)

2. Whale detection (human factor, multi-sensor synergy, REPCET, use of bio-geophysical proxies, studies on near-misses)

3. Whale avoidance (AIS data, track optimization and track scenarios based on VISIR)

4. Data analysis (machine learning).

At the end of the meeting, the proposed collaboration focused on developing a proposal that would make full use of the new technologies to develop onboard detection tools and tackle the challenge of better-seeing and avoiding whales and large marine animals.