Broad Coalition Develops Drones to Protect Critically Endangered New Zealand Dolphins

Image: Oregon State University/Flickr

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A coalition of scientists, environmentalists, fishers, and the New Zealand Government has developed a special drone to monitor and protect one of New Zealand’s most endangered aquatic mammals. There are just 63 Māui dolphins remaining off the west coast of New Zealand, and experts hope that this new technology can give them critical insight that can help the government craft life-saving policies. WWF-New Zealand CEO Livia Esterhazy says it’s unprecedented to have such a diverse coalition pursuing one mission, “We may all sit in different camps, but this data will move us forward. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Why This Matters: The world is facing a biodiversity crisis, and New Zealand is no exception. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, of the country’s approximately 80,000 native species, 799 are considered threatened, and 2,741 are at risk. About 80% of the country’s indigenous species are aquatic, but only about 0.5% of its waters are in “no-take” reserves. Experts say that healthy oceans and fisheries will be a crucial tool in the fight against climate change and have urged countries to protect 30% of all lands and waters by 2030. But New Zealand will have to act fast to bring its marine protection up to speed in the next ten years.

Dangerous Waters: The population of Māui dolphins declined rapidly in the 1970s due to the increased use of gillnets in shallower waters. By the 1980s, just a few hundred were left. 

And yet, these creatures face another, much weirder threat: cat poop. Toxoplasmosis, a parasite that reproduces in the cat’s digestive tract, is “virtually indestructible,” said University of Auckland marine scientist Rochelle Constantine. “Once it gets into our waterways, it’s ingested by fish, which in turn is eaten by dolphins. From there, it’s said to cause organ failure, and it attacks the brain.” But eliminating the wild cat population in New Zealand isn’t a very popular policy, but this new technology could offer a solution.


Deep Blue: Non-profit organization MĀUI63 began initial testing of the drone in 2019 and found that the drone could identify Māui dolphins with 90% accuracy from an altitude of 393 feet. The drone can then follow and film a dolphin for up to six hours. Experts hope that the footage will identify critical areas where dolphins encounter water runoff containing toxoplasmosis. “This data could, if used appropriately, help halt the decline towards extinction for the Māui dolphin, and suppose we start using it for other threatened marine animals,” said Constantine. “It could be a complete game-changer for conservation.”

Previously, trained observers would set out in planes once per year to observe and report on dolphin activity, but these drones can be sent out year-round and at a lower cost. “Only 7 percent of New Zealand is land, the rest is sea, and yet we’ve been under-equipped to study the ocean. There’s only so much money to go around,” said Constantine. Now, the money is flowing to the project. The New Zealand government has invested in the development and deployment of the drones, as has the nation’s largest seafood company, Sanford. The company says that it’s not in it for commercial gain. “We want to do better, to work in a sustainable way, and to use the latest technology. It’s a win-win,” said COO Clement Chia. 

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