Collaborating with Resource Managers to Use Drones to Monitor Oyster Reefs

Through a collaborative research project funded in 2022 by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) Science Collaborative, a team of researchers is assessing the use of uncrewed aircraft systems or drones for monitoring oyster reefs. This multi-reserve undertaking is the “Collaborative Development Of Novel Remote Sensing Workflows For Assessing Oyster Reef Structural And Demographic Characteristics To Inform Management And Restoration”.

Author: Jillian Daly, NC Coastal Reserve Communications Specialist

Research is a core part of our mission here at the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve. Our ten sites serve as living laboratories to support coastal research and long-term monitoring, and to provide facilities for on-site staff, visiting scientists, and graduate students. 

Through a collaborative research project funded in 2022 by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) Science Collaborative, a team of researchers is assessing the use of uncrewed aircraft systems or drones for monitoring oyster reefs. This multi-reserve undertaking is the “Collaborative Development Of Novel Remote Sensing Workflows For Assessing Oyster Reef Structural And Demographic Characteristics To Inform Management And Restoration”.  

Oyster reefs support the vitality and health of our estuaries. Oyster resource managers across the Southeast often rely on conventional monitoring approaches to inform management and restoration decisions. However, these approaches have limitations. They can be time-consuming and span large areas.  Coastal resource managers throughout the region have expressed a need for rapid, standardized, and quantitative methods to more effectively assess oyster reefs.

Research teams with the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) sites in NC, SC, GA, and FL are working with oyster resource managers to find a solution for this need. To do this, they are evaluating drones as a tool for providing quantitative measures of intertidal Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) reefs. These measurements include reef structure, population metrics, and changes to reefs in response to natural and human-caused factors. 

Researchers hope to improve interstate collaboration supporting easier and better oyster management and restoration. This will come from creating a novel template for users to conduct drone-based oyster reef assessments.

At this time, the team has just finished the first year of the project! Researchers have spent the summer collecting drone surveys over various oyster reefs. In addition, they’ve collected on-the-ground data to compare to the drone-based products. Our research coordinator, Justin Ridge, explains how they do this:

“We take the imagery collected by the drone and create a map, stitched together with all the drone photos. Then, we create a 3D model of the environment and compare all of that to the data collected on the reef. Currently, our team is working on the first analysis phase, testing how well the drone products captured different metrics from the reef like height, area, 3D complexity, and others.”

The Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort, NC is often considered a hotbed for oyster management and restoration research! The NC team working on the Drone the Oyster project consists of researchers from NOAA, NCNERR, Duke University, and NC State (our Davidson Fellow!) Through the NERRS, researchers can work together to expand our knowledge and ability to effectively manage oyster reefs in the Southeast! It’s been great to watch this collaborative process throughout the year. 

Pictured above, the summer interns process oyster samples in the lab. The interns got to work with researchers from multiple institutions and learn more about what working on a research project entails! The interns participated in the collection of multiple live oyster samples for each of the reefs surveyed with a drone. The hope is to create a predictive model with this data so that oyster resource managers can use drone-collected data to estimate oyster densities and manage reefs.
 

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