Pushing the boat out

The Hauraki Gulf is in trouble. Dwindling fish stocks, water pollution and increasing sedimentation are damaging the world’s first marine park and sounding alarms for researchers studying the area.

University of Auckland

The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park is the largest in New Zealand, comprising more than a million hectares of ocean, coastline and islands. But it is also situated around the country’s largest city, with all the industrial activity, recreational boating and urban run-off produced by New Zealand’s economic hub.

Wednesday Davis, a Master of Science student in Marine Science, says things are clearly changing rapidly in the Gulf, but it is critical scientists find out just how much.

“Our new normal isn’t normal, but we do have to understand it. That’s what excites me about my research.”

Davis’ current field of work utilises drone footage and machine learning to monitor what is taking place in large, multi-species feeding aggregations.

“Anyone who has been out on a boat before has probably seen really big aggregations of fish and sea birds, sometimes cetaceans like whales and dolphins,” she says. “Fishermen call them workups. My work looks at who is there and what they’re doing in order to learn why they engage in these workups.”

Through the University of Auckland’s Institute of Marine Science (IMS) at Leigh, Davis conducts drone and boat-based observations on the Hauraki Gulf and then works closely with computer scientists to train a computer algorithm to process the footage.

“We’re translating and extracting data from 4K footage, so I go through very slowly, I look at all the animals that are there, draw little boxes around them and say ‘this is a dolphin, what is the dolphin doing? This is a gannet, what is the gannet doing?’ Eventually, once we have a few thousand images of each animal, the artificial intelligence can detect them automatically.

“It can help us understand how they move in time and space, how long they’re spending together in the fray, all that sort of thing.”

Species like dolphins, whales and birds act as canaries in the coal mine, Davis says. Their health and behaviour reflects the wider ecosystem in the Gulf and provides valuable insight into the status of water quality and fish stocks.

“At IMS there are so many opportunities to do different things and work with different people. Having access to lots of great minds can really help us understand these big and complex phenomena better. To do this requires a wide variety of research approaches.”

The Institute has also provided Davis with experience across marine science, including animal husbandry and zookeeping, and internships with MPI and NIWA.

“Doing my degree at UoA definitely opened a lot of doors. And the interdisciplinary nature is so cool—no two days are the same.”

To find out more about the possibilities of a postgraduate science degree at the University of Auckland, visit science.auckland.ac.nz/pg

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