Social media posts have helped scientists monitor one of New Zealand's rarest whale species, the rarely sighted southern right whale, or tohor? .

Photographs shared by members of the public, via Facebook and the nature observation network iNaturalist, have helped scientists assess how the species is doing. focuses on the mainland of Aotearoa in New Zealand.

Completed in cooperation with the Department of Conservation and published in the journal Ocean & Coastal Administration , the study finds that southern right whales are slower than expected to reestablish habitat in continental waters.

The research was led by Annabelle Cranswick, a student at MSc from Waipapa Taumata Rau Faculty of Science, University of Auckland. Sightings of the whale increased between 2003 and 2009, but the increase did not hasn’t been sustained over the past decade, Cranswick found. This is despite some high-profile incidents such as the appearance of Matariki, the southern right whale that captured the hearts of the nation as it lingered in Wellington Harbor in 2018.

One possibility is that knowledge of the species on continental wintering grounds was lost when numbers collapsed due to hunting to the whale.

“The shots provided on social media and by citizen scientists are proving so important for us to monitor the populations of these recovering whales,” said Cranswick. “We can assess that yes it is a southern right whale, and find out how long a whale has been in a particular area.

showing only a part of a whale, can be useful,” says Cranswick. “We can pick a southern straight solely from the white spots called calluses on their heads, their flat backs lacking a dorsal fin, or even their large, paddle-like pectoral fins.”

Information on population demographics facilitates conservation initiatives. The scientists focused on 11 observations on 11 years (2011-2021) in the waters around mainland New Zealand, including the North Islands (Te Ika a Māui), South (Te Waipounamu) and Stewart (Rakiura).

“We scoured ten years of social media data to extract these sighting reports,” says Hannah Hendriks, marine biologist at the Department of Conservation. “There are very few whale researchers and rangers scattered across the country, so we rely on the public to be our eyes and ears.”

Bobby Phuong . took one of the images to be included in the study. He drove nearly an hour to see a whale and her calf in Sumner in August last year, sharing his shots via Facebook.

he said .

In Gisborne, Wainui Seashore resident Ian Ruru. a few meters from the surfers, in September 2018. “She sat right in front of our house for eight hours that day…I guess she wanted her story. let him be told. Paikea, we called her,” Ruru said.

A note to future citizen-scientists.

Southern Right Whales have been hunted to near extinction, with global numbers dropping to 500. In 2009, approximately 2 200 whales were in New Zealand waters , moving between the subantarctic islands of Auckland (Maungahuka) and Campbell Island (Motu Ihupuku), and occasionally found around mainland New Zealand, including Stewart Island (Rakiura). The numbers are slowly picking up.

“Social media has provided detailed information on areas with lots of people and lots of cameras,” says Dr Emma Carroll, from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, who is co-author of the study.

“Where there are fewer people, such as on the west coast of Te Waipounamu (the South Island), information from the community and Department of Conservation rangers recorded in the national database was more important.”

Because Southern Right Whales closer to the shore, many shots came from the top of the cliffs or even from the beach. Southern right whales remain so rare on mainland New Zealand that it is possible there is only one sighting per year.

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