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Drones hold promise as a new technique for tagging and monitoring endangered right whales

Michael Dwyer
Associated Press file
In this March 28, 2018 file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.

North Atlantic right whales are notoriously difficult to track, but a new method for tagging them could hold promise for federal efforts to monitor the critically endangered species.

Researchers have traditionally approached right whales in a small boat and applied suction cup tags using a long pole. The method is often risky for both researchers applying the tags and for the whales themselves. And with a population of fewer than 340 right whales, poor weather conditions make it difficult to consistently tag and monitor them.

But this summer, for the first time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration successfully deployed drones to drop suction cup tags to the backs of right whales congregating on Georges Bank.

Lisa Conger, a researcher for NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said the tags record information about right whale activities and give them more clues about their changing habitats.

"How this habitat use has changed and what the drivers are is really important for us to try to figure out from the conservation and management side of things," she said.

The drones were operated and supplied by the nonprofit Ocean Alliance, which plans to partner with NOAA on future right whale tagging efforts.

"Studying whales is really difficult, and all of us like to have multiple tools in our toolbox to be able to pull out depending on whatever the situation is," said Chris Zadra, drone program manager for Ocean Alliance. "So the drone tagging really is just a new tool in that toolbox."

Conger said she's excited by the results and hopes that more drone operators will be trained so that the tagging can be expanded.