Thursday, July 21, 2016

Splash Drones Assist UVI-CMES with Sea Turtle Research at Brewers Bay

Dr. Paul Jobsis introducing the splash drone to Brewers Bay

            Counting sea turtles in Brewers Bay might not seem difficult, but ask any researcher at UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies (UVI-CMES) and you will hear a story about endangered sea turtles that must be protected.  Marine biology researcher Paul Jobsis and his students at UVI are working to save sea turtles from extinction.
            The Green sea turtles and Hawksbill turtles that reside in Brewer’s Bay are currently on the endangered species list, and their survival is becoming increasingly dependent on the care and accuracy with which they are monitored.  Fortunately, research teams at UVI-CMES are dedicated to tracking sea turtle populations and behavior patterns in and beyond Brewers Bay.  The recent use of a splash drone, provided by Virgin Islands Drone Services and flown by local enthusiast Nick Lynch, to determine the accuracy of the typical monitoring surveys has provided an aerial view of the turtles in the bay.
            “Counting sea turtles using swimming surveys can be tricky,” said Howard Forbes, Jr., a research and public service extension specialist.  “Because they’re underwater, it’s easy to count a turtle twice or miss turtles that swim out of view to avoid the survey team.  But the footage we get from the splash drone allows us to go back and check the accuracy of the swimming survey.  The images we collect are also useful for papers and presentations that contribute to our understanding of marine organisms.”
            A splash drone is a remote control flying device that carries a waterproof camera capable of capturing still and moving images.  In the context of marine science research, it is launched from a boat and navigated around the bay, hovering above the water.  Footage captured by the camera affixed to the drone gives scientists a birds-eye view not only of the sea turtles themselves, but also of the underwater eco-system in which these marine reptiles promote biodiversity.  
UVI researcher using a remote transmitter to control a splash drone.

“Everything within an eco-system plays a role,” said Forbes. “Take, for example, the loss of critical habitat when Hurricane Earl wiped out a large percentage of the sea grass beds within Brewers Bay.  This was a big problem for the Green sea turtles in the bay, who function as underwater lawnmowers.  But the sea grass is also reliant on the turtle whose continuous nibbling encourages it to grow faster.  The more we know about how turtles feed, reproduce, behave and interact with all elements of the eco-systems in which they live, the better equipped we will be to preserve those eco-systems.”
Sadly, the biggest threat to Caribbean sea turtles is the reckless behavior of human beings.  While it is illegal to harvest sea turtles in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands continues to maintain a two month-long harvesting season in which residents are allowed to hunt sea turtles.  The meat is used for food, while the shells are typically used for making jewelry.  But even as environmental advocates pressure the BVI to eliminate its harvesting season, poachers in both territories go on killing the animals without regard for the delicately balanced eco-systems upon which their survival depends.
Other man-made threats to sea turtles include climate change and pollution.  Warmer atmospheric temperatures resulting from climate change could possibly affect the gender distribution of sea turtles as warmer temperatures cause their eggs to produce more females. Sea turtles appear to be monogamous, so it is unclear how the changing ratio of females to males will affect the endangered populations.  Moreover, warmer water that has also been contaminated by harmful bacteria contributes to the destruction of coral reefs, which poses a threat to the Hawksbill sea turtle who dines on coral polyps and sponges.  The Leatherback sea turtle, which nests on St. Thomas, eats jellyfish, which are still in good supply.  But because the Leatherback sea turtle cannot distinguish between a jellyfish and a plastic bag, it will sometimes eat the bag, which sits in the turtle’s stomach, prohibiting normal digestion, until the turtle dies prematurely.  The proliferation of marine debris and plastics is a serious threat to sea turtles and the habitats in which they live.
The accumulation of knowledge is a crucial part of being able to prevent the further degradation of marine eco-systems such as Brewers Bay in which the endangered sea turtle once thrived.  So marine biologists get pretty excited when a new piece of technology comes along that can assist with some of the more painstaking aspects of the research process.  “The splash drone is an effective research tool that will provide scientists with a new way to study sea turtles,” said Forbes. “The more we know about these species, the better able we will be to protect them.”