Monday 8 February 2016

Scientists turn to drones to count growing seal colonies (Update)

February 5, 2016 by By Patrick Whittle

On a remote island off of Nantucket, scientists are using a tool most commonly associated with war and surveillance to get a look at fuzzy baby seals.

Researchers who want to get a handle on the growth of New England's gray seal population have been using drones as part of an effort to photograph the animals, which gather in huge numbers on remote islands.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used a pair of unmanned aircraft on Muskeget Island off of Massachusetts to take pictures of seal pups in January. The island is the biggest gray seal breeding colony in the country.

The pictures will help scientists find how many gray seals there are in Northeastern waters, said Kimberly Murray, the coordinator of the seal research program at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

"We need to know how many seals there are before we can know what's going on, and how to manage them. Or, I should say, manage us," Murray said.

The population of gray seals, which can grow to more than 600 pounds as adults, has rebounded since the mid-20th century after being decimated by hunting. The growth of the seals has generated some complaints from charter fishing boat operators and beachgoers, creating a need for data about their population.

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