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Lava lizard and plastic pollution in Galapagos
21/05/2024 Plastic pollution Technology

Testing the latest technology in the fight against plastic pollution

Henry Moreau-Smith, Masters student at the University of Exeter, introduces us to his research and the technology he hopes will rid the Galapagos Islands of plastic pollution.

Hannah Rickets

Communications and Marketing Officer

Can you give a brief overview of what your research is focused on? 

My research is focused on assessing plastic monitoring methods for use in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. This involves the development of a machine learning algorithm to provide a rapid assessment of plastic counts in mangroves using GoPro footage. Similarly, using drone data from the Iguanas from Above project, I am mapping plastic and fish aggregating device (FAD) accumulation across different sites and years throughout the Archipelago. During the analysis process, the images are also formatted for use with machine learning algorithms, with the hope of creating a comprehensive dataset of Galapagos plastic drone images that can be used for training AI.

Drone imagery of Punta Espinoza, Fernandina
Drone imagery of Punta Espinoza, Fernandina © Iguanas from Above

Iguanas from Above

Discover the project that combines drone technology with citizen science to monitor the health of marine iguana populations in Galapagos

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What are FADs and why are they a risk to marine wildlife?

Fish aggregating devices (FADs) are usually constructed with wood or bamboo, with long nets hanging beneath them designed to attract and catch fish. Drifting FADs are deployed at the edge of the Galapagos Marine Reserve and transported through the reserve on ocean currents. They are then collected upon exiting the reserve, along with any species entangled in the nets. They are primarily designed to target large pelagic fish that inhabit the Galapagos, such as yellowfin tuna.

However, the nets entangle many other species, including sea lions, sharks, and rays. Additionally, they can also get washed ashore and pose a threat to species in coastal areas. With estimates suggesting that as few as 10% of these drifting FADs are retrieved, monitoring and mitigation methods must be developed.

Fish aggregating device (FAD) off Floreana, Galapagos
Fish aggregating device (FAD) off Floreana, Galapagos © Jen Jones
Fish aggregating device (FAD) in Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Are FADs damaging our oceans?

Learn more about FADs and their impact on Galapagos

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What drew you to conduct your research in Galapagos?

I was drawn to the Galapagos Islands from a very young age when I had my first lessons on evolution. I learnt about this beautiful Archipelago with its many evolutionary-unique species, and I knew instantly that I would love to visit one day. However, it was not until my undergraduate project at the University of Exeter that I got offered the opportunity to work on the data analysis of drone images collected in Galapagos.

I found this project eye-opening, as it demonstrated that this beautiful Archipelago I had once learnt about was vulnerable to plastic pollution. So, when the opportunity came for me to start a Master of Research degree, developed from my undergraduate project, I knew I had to get involved.

Henry in the Galapagos Islands © Henry Moreau-Smith
GCT and PPSS team in front of the Greenpeace art installation in Paris

Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos

Learn about our work to tackle pollution across Galapagos and the Eastern Pacific region

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What have you been working on during your trip to Galapagos in March? Any highlights of the trip?

During my trip, I collected more mangrove videos from across Santa Cruz to test the accuracy of the machine learning algorithm we have been developing. I also got to assist in the drone training workshop run by GCT, which was brilliant, as it was great to see so many members of the National Park eager to learn how to use this tool.

We had some promising trials, and the team seemed adept at piloting the drones throughout the monitoring trips. When I was not working, a personal highlight was going on my first-ever diving trip and seeing a group of over 30 scalloped hammerheads. It was surreal seeing them glide through the water around me.

Henry collecting samples © Henry Moreau-Smith
GCT drone workshop with the GNPD coastal clean-up team

Technology and conservation

Discover how technology is helping to rid Galapagos of plastic pollution

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What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone just starting their career in conservation?

As a master’s student, I am very new to this field as well, but if I had to give one piece of advice that has helped me so far, it would be to ask lots of questions. You meet so many amazing people with so much experience that they are willing to share if you ask them, which has helped me plan for future improvements to my methodology. On my trip to Galapagos, I made many great contacts that I am sure I will use in the future as my research progresses.

Henry diving with a sea lion in Galapagos © Henry Moreau-Smith

Inspiring the next generation of conservationists

Read about how we’re helping to connect children in Galapagos with nature

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What is your favourite Galapagos species and why?

My favourite species is the Galapagos sea lion, as they are just so cute and overflowing with charisma, displaying a huge variety of personalities, which I find completely fascinating. I love how, in San Cristobal, they are so accustomed to people in the populated areas, as you often see them covering the benches and going where they please. They are also incredibly inquisitive, often approaching us in remote areas of the reserve while we were conducting fieldwork.

Galapagos sea lion asleep on San Cristobal
Galapagos sea lion (San Cristobal) © Wilson Andrade
Galapagos sea lions

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Help the wildlife of Galapagos survive and thrive

There are many ways to support our vision for a sustainable Galapagos: why not adopt an animal, become a GCT member or donate today?

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