A scientist is studying how cameras on ships might protect monk seals from fishing fleets. Computer recognition is the key, as this blob -- er, seal at the Waikiki Aquarium shows.

Sea critter profiling

Shipboard cameras may be
able to identify monk seals

An Alaska scientist is in Hawaii developing a "library of images" of Hawaiian monk seals that could help fishing vessels avoid catching the endangered animals in their nets.

"Right now the only solution is to put a human observer on a boat," pointed out Mark Buckley, who owns a company in Kodiak called Digital Observer.

"We're trying to discover whether we can train the computer to recognize a Hawaiian monk seal swimming near a boat," he said.

Alaska has many types of seals, as well as beavers, otters and other sea animals, that could confuse the images, Buckley said.

The beauty of a camera system in Hawaii, he said, is that a seal-shaped profile would only be a Hawaiian monk seal.

Scientist Mark Buckley has been collecting images of Hawaiian monk seals from the roof of the Waikiki Aquarium. His study is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Buckley has been on the Waikiki Aquarium's roof the past week taking pictures of the two male monk seals in the pool below with near-infrared, infrared and standard cameras.

He will leave Tuesday on a chartered fishing boat to photograph seals in waters around Oahu and Kauai and "collect images of other things the camera could mistake for seals."

He uses infrared imagery to distinguish the shape of a warm-blooded seal apart from the cooler water. He also wants to see if the cameras can identify dolphins and seabirds, which are warmer than the water.

His goal is to develop an automated camera and computer system that can be mounted on a boat to recognize images of seals. A Global Positioning System card would be used to track the boat and location of the seal, he said.

"It's all off-the-shelf technology. We only have to write software to segregate seals."

Buckley said his company uses video imaging and machine vision to provide high-tech solutions to commercial fisheries' and seafood processing problems.

The Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council heard of his work and invited him here two years ago, he said.

He met with WESTPAC's science and statistical committee in May 2001 and returned the following month for a presentation to the council, which asked him to do a pilot project.

His study is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Brian Greene, an University of Hawaii undergraduate student in zoology who works mornings for the National Marine Fisheries Service, has taken afternoon shifts on the aquarium roof to assist Buckley.

"It just sounded like an interesting project," said Greene. "Technology has to be adapted to being on a ship, but I think we could place it out there without a human operator. It would take fine-tuning."

Buckley has had the cameras going from 5 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on the aquarium roof to capture images of the seals in all kinds of conditions.

"It's a very noninvasive way to monitor the animals," said aquarium biologist Kimberly Krusell, who manages the seal program.

She expects to learn more about the seals' behavior from the images, saying, "A picture really is worth 1,000 words."

Buckley said Hawaiian monk seals are "fascinating critters," but he has found it takes patience to photograph them.

In five hours on the roof under a blazing sun one day, he got only two pictures of the seals moving, he said.

"I felt like a National Geographic photographer," he said, "but if they're not moving, they're not moving."

He said Krusell describes the animals as "masters of energy conservation."


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