Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

MGEL collaborates with New York State to correlate Acoustic and Visual Survey Data for Cetaceans 

The Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab is launching a new project partnering with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). In 2020, the State of New York finished collecting three years of acoustic and visual data on large whales in state waters. MGEL will work on an analysis of this data, correlating the visual and acoustic data to identify relationships between them.  

New York Bight Study Area (light blue polygon) with aerial survey transect lines shown in white and acoustic recorders shown in red. 

The NYSDEC dataset that MGEL will be working with contains visual and acoustic data for blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, and North Atlantic right whales throughout the New York Bight.  

The team will look at several different acoustic metrics, examining distinct ways to represent the relationship between the two types of data. They seek an “acoustic occurrence metric”, an interpretation of the data that has the strongest relationship to the visual survey data. The team is looking at metrics like hours or days per month or per season that the animals were present.  

Tina Yack, a research scientist at MGEL, is leading the project, along with Jason Roberts. Tina is hopeful that the team will find a spatial acoustic index that can ultimately be used to inform density surface models, essentially adjusting abundance up or down based on acoustic detections.  

“This is a good test case, with quality data,” Tina says, “the availability of both acoustic and visual data on a monthly basis makes this a great place to start answering these questions.”  

MGEL currently hosts the foremost marine mammal density models for the east coast of the United States. The ultimate goal for this project is to use the acoustic record as a covariate for cetacean density models, helping to inform more accurate density surface models. Eventually, this type of data could be incorporated in real time, allowing for nowcast or forecast models. 

“This work can be applied in areas that record acoustic data but where we aren’t able to conduct visual surveys for logistical reasons,” Tina says, “ultimately, having more information is always good, especially when talking about critically endangered species like North Atlantic right whales. We have so much acoustic data, it will be great to figure out more ways to make use of it to improve policy and management for critical species.”