Best Practices for Mitigating Negative Interactions Between Marine Mammals and MicroROVs

Today, we published our guidelines on the responsible operation of small recreational ROVs around marine mammals.

You can read the full paper here: Thaler and friends (2019) Bot Meets Whale: Best Practices for Mitigating Negative Interactions Between Marine Mammals and MicroROVs. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00506.

Reprinted below are the explicit guidelines proposed in the paper.

1. Education. Central to any mitigation strategy involving diverse stakeholders, ranging from professional to recreational, is user education. The following are critical to establishing a responsible user community: Ensuring all potential microROV users 1) not only understand the laws and regulations for wildlife viewing that apply to the jurisdiction in which they are operating, but understand why those regulations are in place; and, most importantly, 2) have internalized a stewardship ethic that motivates them to respect the rationale behind those regulations even when operating in regions where those regulations are not enforced. This is most effective when it occurs at point-of-sale or registration of the microROV. Thus, while the additional four guidelines relate to the user, this first one relates to the manufacturer. To most effectively convey the potential harm that microROVs could pose to marine mammals, the manufacturers are best positioned to educate their user base by providing informational material with each microROV sale. 

2. Avoid unintentional contact by maintaining situational awareness. As some of the most disruptive outcomes of interaction between marine mammals and microROVs are unintentional contact, users must maintain comprehensive situational awareness of their operating site, the location of their tether, and the presence of any marine mammals. When an animal-initiated approach is observed, users should first confirm that the microROV tether is not in the path of approach and then either remain stationary with thrusters powered down until the animal passes or remove the vehicle from the water while causing minimal disturbance.

3. Avoid intentional contact by maintaining a safe distance and piloting responsibly. When operated in close proximity to marine mammals, microROVs should be treated no differently than any other vehicle. Intentional contact with marine mammals is not only highly disruptive but is illegal in some countries. MicroROV operators should familiarize themselves with local wildlife viewing regulations, always maintain a safe distance (50 to 100m; distances can be estimated by placing markers on the tether to act as a scale) when piloting a microROV in areas where marine mammals are present and maintain constant awareness over the location of both the robots and marine mammals. Where local regulations or professional standards exist for local tourism, microROVs should not get closer than the distances stipulated by local marine mammal approach standards. Any direct contact between a microROV and a marine mammal should be treated as an unacceptable encounter and microROV operations should cease immediately. Maintaining a safe distance will also mitigate the impact of noise produced by the microROV.

4. Treat microROVs as a tool to reduce, rather than increase, vehicle density. MicroROVs present a powerful opportunity to allow a large number of people to safely view marine mammals. Because of this, it may be tempting to deploy multiple microROVs in regions where marine mammals are known to aggregate, thus increasing the risk of contact and behavioral alterations to the target species. MicroROVs should be treated as tools to reduce vehicle density by allowing multiple operators and viewers to use a single microROV feed as an alternative to many divers in the water or numerous tour boats. As multiple microROVs operating in a small area also create hazards for the devices, operators should adopt standards and protocols (such as “first-come, first-served” commonly used at popular SCUBA diving locations) to minimize microROV density.

5. Minimize deployment in regions of known ecological importance to marine mammals. There are a number of locations that have been designated as Marine Protected Areas or identified as “hotspots” for marine mammals, year-round and seasonally, such as Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii. In addition, there are locations where marine mammals are reliably sighted and engaged in normal behaviors, such as foraging, mating, or nursing. Operators should refrain from deploying microROVs in such areas, as well as in areas where marine mammals are present in large numbers. In cases where the microROV is already in the water, operators should recall the device if it becomes likely that direct or indirect contact could occur. Operators should always refrain from pursuing or otherwise interacting with marine mammals. In cases where rare and vulnerable species are observed (and particularly when engaged in critical behaviors such as forging, mating, or nursing young), microROV users should make every effort to remove their equipment from the water without causing additional disturbance.