New Zealand: artificial intelligence comes to the rescue of the dolphins of Māui

There are more than 30 species of dolphins in the world, the Māui dolphin, which lives off the west coast of the North Island, New Zealand, faces the threat of extinction. To save this rarest dolphin in the world, a non-profit organization has been created: MAUI63 (Marine Animal Unmanned Identification, 63 representing the estimated number of Māui dolphins at the start of this initiative in 2018). The team’s scientists and conservationists use an AI-powered drone to spot, track, identify these and Hector’s dolphins, and ultimately protect them.

The population of Māui dolphins has further declined since the launch of the project as a 2021 study only counted 54.

Hector’s and Māui’s dolphins are small coastal dolphins found only in New Zealand. Hector’s dolphins mainly live around the South Island, Māui dolphins, on the other hand, are only found on the west coast of the North Island.

The Hector’s dolphin has been listed as Nationally Vulnerable by the New Zealand Threat Classification System (NZTCS), its population is around 15,000 while the Māui’s dolphin is listed as Nationally Critical in the same frame.

Māui’s and Hector’s dolphins look very similar, they both have a rounded dorsal fin but Māui’s has a larger skull and a slightly longer snout. Their reproduction is very slow, with a female giving birth to a young every 2 to 4 years. The population of the two species fell sharply in the 1970s, with the appearance of gillnets and trawling.

In 2008, a threat management plan for Hector’s and Māui’s dolphins was developed by the DOC (Department of Conservation) and Fisheries New Zealand, the Department of Fisheries. Various actions have been put in place, including restrictions on industrial and recreational fishing, the establishment of sanctuaries dedicated to marine mammals and, more recently, an action plan against toxoplasmosis which is said to kill around two Māui dolphins each year. Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite that lives in cat feces that ends up in the sea through runoff.

The MAUI63 project

The MAUI63 project was formed in 2018 by Tane van der Boon, Software Designer, CEO and Technical Lead, Willy Wang, Operations Lead and Drone Enthusiast in collaboration with Rochelle Constantine Head of Research and Marine Science Extraordinary, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland.

Pete Carscallen, a professional commercial pilot, has joined the team as chief pilot and brings a solid aviation background to the team. The 5th member of the team is Hayley Nessia, a marine biologist trained in drone piloting.

Four years of development, testing and fundraising

The MAUI63 project aims to:

  • Find and track dolphins via surveys, to create accurate spatial distribution models;
  • Reveal temporal changes in dolphin movement patterns;
  • Use data to inform threat risk models informed by natural (shark predation) and anthropogenic (fisheries, climate change, toxoplasmosis) factors;
  • Uniquely identify individuals through fin markings;
  • Distinguish adults from young people.

The development was facilitated by funding under New Zealand’s National Cloud and AI Plan, which funds projects with lasting societal impact, as well as support from Microsoft Philanthropies ANZ.

The rounded fins of Māui dolphins differ from the more pointed fins of other dolphins so existing computer vision models were not suitable for identifying Māui dolphins. Tane van der Boon spent several months building a model that he trained on images of Māui dolphins found on the internet. The initial computer vision AI model has been operational since 2019.

The solution combines an 8K ultra high definition fixed camera and a Full HD gimbal camera with an object detection model to spot dolphins and an open-source algorithm, originally developed for facial recognition. Hosted on Microsoft Azure, it collects data that will be used to identify individual animals by the shape and size of their dorsal fins and the stripes and marks on them.

MAUI63 plans to make its learnings and technology available for research for other marine species, including through a potential project in Antarctica with the European Union’s Environment Council.

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New Zealand: artificial intelligence comes to the rescue of the dolphins of Māui


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