Advanced Sampling and Technology for Extinction Risk Reduction and Recovery
A new NOAA Fisheries program advances conservation and recovery of protected marine species through innovative technology.
NOAA Fisheries is a leader in protected species conservation. Our scientists and partners use time-tested and advanced technologies—including satellite tagging, artificial intelligence, statistical models, and biomolecular sampling—to study and monitor marine and anadromous species, which improves conservation management.
In 2023, we launched the Advanced Sampling and Technology for Extinction Risk Reduction and Recovery (ASTER3) program to advance our mission to prevent extinction and promote recovery of protected species. Through collaborations and strategic planning, this program aims to accelerate transformational technological advancements that help conserve the nation’s at-risk species and their habitats. The program’s projects fall under one or more of its advanced technology strategic themes:
- Uncrewed systems
- Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
- Acoustics: monitoring and quieting
- Advanced sampling and Omics
- Advanced statistical methods
These advanced technologies generate innovative solutions for NOAA Fisheries’ conservation and management of protected species.
The ASTER3 program structure is represented by a flower, where each of the petals are strategic themes. The petals are overlapping to demonstrate that some projects under the ASTER3 program encompass multiple strategic themes.
The program’s strategic themes have the potential to achieve transformational advancements in sampling and technology. Investing in these sampling methods and technologies gives us the opportunity to make a lasting impact on how we research, monitor, and manage protected species.
Uncrewed systems are autonomous or remotely operated technologies that collect information without direct human contact. These technologies can include drones or robotic underwater vehicles. Uncrewed systems allow scientists to monitor species with little or no disturbance while improving human safety. For example, aerial images captured from a drone allow us to detect changes in whale populations over time, including health conditions, abundance, and population structure (such as calf and pup production). These operations provide scientists, government agencies, and academic and industry partners with data that could not otherwise be collected, including from some of the world’s most remote environments. This technology advances our ability to achieve conservation goals and effective environmental resource management.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Artificial intelligence and machine learning can be used to understand and anticipate protected species presence to inform timely management decisions. These techniques are particularly helpful when large amounts of information need to be analyzed to identify patterns. They can be used to detect animal vocalizations from acoustic recordings as well as from diverse types of imagery. For example, acoustic recordings from hydrophones, or underwater microphones, can be analyzed to automatically detect whale presence instead of having to manually sort through large amounts of recordings to visually detect whales. There are incredible amounts of data but current processes are extremely time consuming, costly, and involve large backlogs. Using these techniques will expedite data processing and provide critical science products for management and conservation decisions more efficiently.
Acoustics: Monitoring and Quieting the Ocean
The ocean soundscape is a critical component of the underwater environment. Many protected species rely on sound to communicate with each other, including navigating, finding food, mating, and avoiding predators. Passive acoustic monitoring of marine mammals is an efficient and cost-effective way to assess their occurrence, particularly over large and remote areas. Stationary or mobile platforms or buoys can provide near real-time detection capabilities. Scientists can use acoustic data to:
- Evaluate changes in species distribution for highly mobile species
- Track status and trends in baseline conditions (e.g., climate change and human impacts) of vocalizing species in near real-time
Increasing ocean noise due to human activities can impact how animals eat, breed, nurse, and communicate, which makes investigating technologies to make the ocean quieter important. Quieting technology such as alternative propulsion ship design and noise abatement systems can reduce human-caused noise impacts to protected marine species and their acoustic habitats. This is important for ensuring that species are able to thrive in their natural habitats.
Advanced Sampling and Omics
Advanced sampling and Omics are biology disciplines focused on molecular processes in cells and tissues (e.g., genetic analyses of tissue samples or eDNA). These techniques can be used to examine population structures and individual health with minimal disturbance especially where resources and circumstances are otherwise limiting. These sampling methods can even allow “time travel” via historical perspectives on populations through previously collected water and other samples. Some examples of advanced health sampling and monitoring methods include a wearable blood sampling device called a “hemotag” to collect whole blood samples from marine mammal skin or using X-rays as a non-invasive method to accurately age an individual cetacean. These approaches will improve the scientific basis for understanding protected species and their environment.
Advanced Statistical Methods
Using advanced statistical methods scientists can analyze multiple data sources, explore patterns in the data, and estimate important population metrics. These methods help researchers make meaningful inferences from data collected in the field and take advantage of recent advances in computer processing and applied mathematics. For example, statistical models for estimating abundance, distribution, and movements over wide areas can be used to map where animals like humpback whales are likely to occur. Spatial models can also create more productive and more cost-effective sampling designs for field surveys. Advanced statistical methods allow us to make sense of and learn from extensive datasets to inform management decisions and promote protection of species.
Imagery from satellites and uncrewed aerial systems are an emerging method of data collection. Examples include:
- Airborne multispectral imagery used to detect protected species in hard-to-survey habitats such as those of ice seals
- Land-based remote cameras that monitor protected species continuously and non-invasively (e.g,. monitor Steller sea lions at haulout sites)
- High-resolution satellite imagery can be used to detect marine mammals from space to aid in understanding shifts in distribution and habitat use
- Electronic monitoring on fishing vessels to document protected species bycatch
The advanced resolution and methods of imagery allow for more frequent and evenly distributed surveys to increase our understanding of protected species.