Using Unmanned Aerial Systems to Inform Marine Debris Removal Strategies and Monitor Habitat Recovery in the Rachel Carson Reserve
The North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve has partnered with the NOAA Marine Debris Program and researchers from Duke University to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to map and identify marine debris within the Rachel Carson Reserve, using this data to locate and remove debris as well as monitor restoration of debris-damaged areas.
Type of Project: Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant
Project Dates: : July 2016 – June 2018
Who is involved?
With the support of a NOAA Marine Debris Program Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant, the Rachel Carson Reserve (RCR), part of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve (NCNERR) within the State of North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, has teamed up with Duke University’s Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab to prioritize cleanup efforts within the reserve. Duke University is flying unmanned aerial systems (UAS) over the entirety of the reserve and producing maps that identify the location of medium and large debris items. The RCR has also partnered with the Town of Beaufort, North Carolina Maritime Museum - Beaufort, and TowBoatUS to assist with the removal and disposal of debris. North Carolina Sea Grant is also working with reserve staff to disseminate information about the project in Coastal Watch magazine.
What is the project and why is it important?
Marine debris, such as lumber, pilings, pallets, derelict fishing gear, and abandoned and derelict vessels, wash onto the shoreline and beyond in the RCR. If these items aren’t removed, they can degrade habitat or injure wildlife or visitors to the reserve. In the past, RCR staff have actively managed debris issues through formal and non-formal education programs, research, and organized cleanups. The majority of these cleanups have focused on smaller debris items that community volunteers can easily and safely handle. However, the medium and larger debris items are often more difficult to remove, requiring a much more coordinated cleanup effort. Another challenge is that much of the RCR is remote and requires boat or ferry access, making debris removal challenging.
To address these issues, the RCR has teamed up with Duke University’s Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab to produce maps created by flying UAS over the entirety of the reserve. These UAS produce geo-referenced, high-quality maps that allow for Duke to identify medium and large debris in areas that are remote or not often accessed by reserve staff. The maps are then compared to already-established habitat maps of the RCR, and then used to strategically prioritize removal efforts to maximize habitat benefits. Debris and debris scars can also be measured from the UAS-generated maps and used to monitor habitat regeneration. The project team estimates that over 12,000 pounds of debris will have been removed by the end of this 2-year project!