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Competition to track belugas may ultimately help save them

Belugas are massive and charismatic whales that reach about 15 feet in length and can weigh as much as 3,500 pounds. Belugas were also a target for whaling, a legacy that they are still living down. 

Cook Inlet belugas have dwindled since the 1990s to the point that there are only 300 individuals remaining. These few whales are tracked through challenging environmental conditions in the subarctic. Photos from both boats and overhead drones can be used to identify individual whales.  

Now, NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) are announcing a partnership with DrivenData, HeroX, Wild Me and NASA. Together, the collaboration is creating a competition to help NOAA fisheries managers identify individual beluga whales from photos. The Where’s Whale-do? competition is offering a $35,000 prize to the winner.    

“Our goal is to be able to analyze our overhead photographs of Cook Inlet beluga whales quickly and accurately to produce annual estimates of abundance and calf production in a timely manner,” said Paul Wade, a beluga whale researcher at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “This will allow us to monitor the population and try to understand what may be hindering the recovery of this endangered whale population.”

“We are pleased to support this important research,” said Dr. Christina Bonsell, an ecologist in BOEM’s Alaska Regional Office. “BOEM’s Environmental Studies Program looks for innovative solutions to resource management challenges. Leveraging crowdsourcing can help ensure effective management and protection of this critically endangered marine mammal population.” 

Traditionally, matching photos of whales looking for dorsal ridge patterns, colors, unique scars and other features is time consuming and sometimes challenging for monitors. It’s hoped that the contest winner will find an elegant solution utilizing AI technology to automate and speed up the process. 

“These kinds of open AI challenges channel the efforts of skilled experts and enhance the tools available to our nation’s public agencies,” said Greg Lipstein, Principal at DrivenData. “This solution will have the immediate potential to be used for whale image matching, a critical step in the effective and timely conservation of these endangered belugas.”

The challenge is open to anyone working individually or as a team over 18 years of age. The person or people can also come from any country that is not under sanction by the US government. 

The goals of the project are lofty and besides the prize money offer a chance for a talented person or team to make a real difference in conservation and perhaps create new tools to be used again in other conservation projects.  

“Keeping endangered animals safe is top-of-mind for me, and I am excited to have the talented community of HeroX solvers engaged in this important challenge,” said Kal K. Sahota, CEO, HeroX. 

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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