The airborne invaders began showing up in 2013.
In one of the earliest instances, two guys with two drones flying in tandem made multiple passes over a herd of pregnant harbor seals below Hopkins Marine Station at the southern end of Monterey Bay off the coast of California. Scared, the seals stampeded into the water. Scolded by passersby on the trail above the beach, the drone operators said they could do whatever they wanted.
But they can’t, not legally anyway. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits disturbing marine mammals, even common ones like harbor seals. And Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which spans the offshore waters and shoreline from north of San Francisco to nearly 300 miles (480km) south, has had regulations banning low-flying aircraft of any kind since 1992.
As the casual and professional use of drones increases, the marine sanctuary is just one of the places where concerns are being raised about whether the unmanned devices are hurting ocean wildlife – and whether new regulations or better education and enforcement of existing laws are needed.
Regulations against disturbing wildlife “apply whether you’re in a kayak, flying a drone, in a helicopter – it doesn’t really matter,” said Scott Kathey, the sanctuary’s federal regulatory coordinator. Enforcement officers haven’t issued fines yet, he said, but have given several written warnings.
Those warnings are because drones – or any noisy or strange disturbance – could stress animals to the point that they might not be able to feed or rest and could scare them into stampeding away in a panic, abandoning or injuring their young.
A 2015 study from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showed that pinnipeds – seals, sea lions and walruses – are more sensitive to drone activity at low altitudes than cetaceans, which include whales, dolphins and porpoises. However, even whales notice them, according to marine biologist Alicia Amerson, who has heard accounts of whales flipping over and looking up at hovering drones. The NOAA study’s lead author, Courtney Smith, said new science has been published since the report came out, but “many data gaps remain” on how marine mammals respond to these noise disturbances.
While efforts to understand more specifics are continuing, so are those to educate drone users – both about negative effects and about the rules that are in place. Amerson, who is based in California, started a new initiative, AliMoSphere, earlier this year to develop best practice guidelines for using drones to study marine wildlife. The group also conducts training sessions for anyone interested, at $20 per attendee. She says sessions will be held throughout the winter on the West Coast as gray whales migrate south.
“Drones allow us to see things from different perspectives and everyone wants to show their friends and family a great wildlife shot,” said Brian Taggart, the director of Oceans Unmanned, which promotes the safe operation of drones and other autonomous technologies to protect the marine environment. Taggart says resource managers have reached out to the group with increasing reports of disturbances, which led it, too, to create an education campaign, ECO-Drone. They’re also working on developing a certification course.
Researchers and commercial operators generally know the rules, Kathey said, but the new wave of drone hobbyists often don’t, and it’s on them to learn them. “When you enter the state of Nevada, there isn’t a sign saying these are the rules of the road in Nevada. If you’re entering the state, it’s your responsibility,” he said. In the sanctuary, drones and any motorized aircraft are banned in four areas, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also has its own more general restrictions. The sanctuary’s education strategy involves making sure all the rules are easily accessible and advertised, because placing signs every 20ft (6m) along the beach isn’t exactly practical, he said.
In many places, however, it may be unclear who is in charge or where to go to find more information, and so reaching hobbyists earlier might be better. Kathey said the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to the north of the Monterey Bay sanctuary has been working with manufacturers on putting messaging on packaging and that there have been discussions about developing geofencing – basically digital borders – that would automatically notify drone users of local regulations within a specific area.
Drones and similar new technologies, meanwhile, have opened the door to myriad new research opportunities. For scientists, who often will get permits to study protected wildlife, the problem is an old one: how to get close, now with a flying whirring device, without disrupting animals and how to observe without influencing animal behavior.
For example, as a research assistant Amerson flew drones about 130ft (40m) above humpback and right whales off Australia the past two summers to learn about their body conditions and prey availability. The mothers don’t eat in the reproductive area off Australia, so by taking photos with drones she and her colleagues could try to track, essentially, how fast the mom is shrinking compared to how quickly their baby is fattening up.
Scientists, too, are learning best practices. “One of the big challenges with this emerging technology is that each class and type of drone presents a different visual and acoustic profile, and each species of concern reacts differently to those factors,” Taggart said. Collecting data on the disturbances, he said, needs to be a part of using drones in research.
For example, Oceans Unmanned is using both fixed-wing and quad drones to count a gray seal population in New England this winter. “It’s best to start high and work lower,” Taggart said, watching for any signs the animals feel harassed or disturbed. “Every flight helps our understanding of any negative effects.”
NOAA says it is working closely with the marine mammal research community to create formal guidance and best practices for drone operators, which it expects to issue in 2018. It is aiming to reconcile the FAA’s rule requiring drones to stay below 400ft (120m) with its own rules requiring any aircraft, including drones, to not fly lower than 1,500ft (460m) in sensitive areas.
Drone regulations could help prevent wildlife harassment, Taggart said, but so too could improving technologies, including the cameras themselves. With better cameras, drone operators may not need to get so close to wildlife in the first place.