GIS in Marine Research!

Thanks, KM, Intro to GIS

Isn’t it amazing how Geographic information systems are being used so widely around the world for various purposes? Not only has GIS technology contributed greatly to marine research, aiding in the conservation of marine mammals, but it also has become a tool with which marine researchers are depending on more and more to track and protect species from extinction, as well as influence policy decisions.

Marine biologist Michelle Kinzel has researched grey whales off the central coast of British Columbia. She studied the behaviour of grey whales, at first using manual methods. Gradually Kinzel began using GIS approaches for her grey whale research, skills she learned from a “sea turtle satellite telemetry project”. ArcView, plus an extension (Animal Movement) is used in her whale research. It uses several tools to study travel patterns (migration), as well as habitat features and functions. Feeding grounds for whales change over time; thus habitats and movements change depending on the type and abundance of prey available. Behavioural patterns (movement, habitat selection) are better understood from research done on specific prey types. GPS readings, along with photographs, are also taken every time Kinzel spots a whale. The GPS readings add extra information to the photo logs while contributing to data that is analyzed by the Animal Movement extension. The extension analyzes the data using a kernel density distribution, which is a more precise method of estimating the home range sizes and location of whales within their particular habitats (Smith 2003). These are but a few examples of how GIS technology can be used as a means of improving marine research.

Researchers have worked with ESRI to develop Arc Marine as an integrative data platform to track great whales (Brett et al. 2007).

GIS is also being used to help save North Atlantic right whales (endangered species). The leading cause of right whale mortality is impact with shipping vessels and boats. For this reason, GIS technology has aided greatly in research on North Atlantic right whales. Remote sensing techniques, such as satellites, are being used for research purposes, tracking the movement and habitat of right whales in order to better understand and potentially predict the location of the right whale populations. GIS technology is also used for tracking shipping patterns and understanding where/when commercial fishing activities, as well as other human activities, could be impacting the right whale population. The New England aquarium research center is doing more research in order to better understand the interactions between human presence and right whales, and enforce policies in order to help save the right whale population. They’ve stated that their GIS program “is helping conserve critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, track rehabilitated and released marine animals and train [their] next generation of ocean stewards” (Ris 2008). Therefore, the information and research provided by GIS technology greatly enhances the chances of saving the right whale population.

Another benefit of GIS technology is its use in the marine field. GIS allows researchers/scientists to classify and study complex data through space and time (Engleby 2001). For example, the integration of specific data results on maps help identify where right whales may be at certain times of the year, or how far rehabilitated turtles might travel through satellite tracking systems. The New England Aquarium uses GIS “to explore marine environments. Mapping allows [them] to interpret relationships not visible through the tables or graphs that are more commonly used in scientific studies. [They] look for innovative conservation solutions by analyzing the spatial distribution of right whales relative to shipping lanes and the travel patterns of dolphins and sea turtles” (Ris 2008). It could be said then that GIS technology is not only beneficial to the research and understanding of marine life, but also its preservation.

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