Vodacom testing AI-powered warning system to protect whales and other sea animals

Vodacom South Africa has teamed up with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to test an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered early warning system for protecting marine mammals against net entanglements.

The project is being piloted in Saldanha Bay on South Africa’s West Coast — an area where mussel farms have become more popular due to traditional fishing encountering problems caused by overfishing, pollution and climate change.

The AI-powered system will use cameras and hydrophones to alert mussel farmers about whales in the Saldanha Bay Aquaculture Development Zone (SBADZ).

In the case of an entanglement, it will help activate the ADZ Incident and Emergency Response Protocol.

Rope-grown mussel farms are regarded as a sustainable alternative to traditional fishing due to their low environmental impact.

However, although these farms are green-listed, they present the potential risk of the entanglements of marine mammals, including whales.

The WWF said whales played a critical role in the marine environment’s overall health, particularly as carbon capturers.

“Estimates are that each great whale sequesters an estimated 33 tonnes of CO2 on average,” the WWF said.

“Unfortunately, six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable, even after decades of protection.”

In addition to preventing whale engagements, the system will be used to gather scientific data by recording the movement of marine life and could help to prevent ship strikes for other superpods, such as seals and dolphins.

A rope-grown mussel farm in Saldanha Bay.

WWF Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative manager Pavitray Pillay said rope-grown mussels were a fantastic source of sustainable seafood.

“All efforts to ensure that this industry remains on our WWF-SASSI green list are to be welcomed,” Pillay said.

“We are delighted that Vodacom has chosen to put the time, efforts and resources into this pilot project, which has great potential to scale elsewhere in other Aquaculture Development Zones around the coast.”

The plan is to expand the project to other coastal areas and fisheries once the system’s testing in Saldanha Bay has been completed.

Vodacom South Africa CEO Sitho Mdlalose said South Africa’s coastal waters played a vital role in contributing to the country’s socio-economic growth through industrial operations and tourism.

“As part of our commitment to ensuring we have a healthy planet for generations to come and accelerating the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations, Vodacom has been working with the WWF to help conserve this precious resource through our capabilities as a technology provider,” Mdlalose said.

“Our long-standing partnership with the WWF showcases how we all can play a part in making a positive difference to our planet’s longevity while uplifting communities who are facing social, economic and climate change challenges.”

Sitho Mdlalose, Vodacom South Africa CEO at the launch of the AI-powered early warning system pilot project.

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Vodacom testing AI-powered warning system to protect whales and other sea animals