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Scientists make new recommendations to avoid ‘helicopter research’ trends in aerial mangrove monitoring

23 April 2021
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A new paper has found that mangrove research using unmanned aerial tools like drones is largely conducted in and led by institutions in higher-income countries, despite fewer mangroves being located there.

Research published in Frontiers in Marine Science finds that high-income countries published mangrove research at 4 times the rate of the amount of mangrove coverage they have, with mangrove coverage of 11% but comprising 43% of aerial mangrove research studies. By contrast, low-income countries were found to have 10% mangrove coverage, yet they published just 1% of studies.

The authors, led by Astrid Hsu at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, make a series of recommendations for more equitable use of aerial tools for mangrove research, including increasing research capacity in the countries where mangroves are typically situated.  

The need for mangrove monitoring

Mangroves provide important benefits to life on land and below water. They protect coastlines against storms and erosion, and their ability to sequester atmospheric carbon means they play a vital role in efforts to tackle climate change. However, many valuable mangrove ecosystems have been lost due to historically high rates of deforestation.

Global Mangrove Watch data estimates that between 1996-2010, 12% of mangroves were lost worldwide. The process of mangrove deforestation is frequently economically motivated. Mangroves are replaced by exportable commodities such as aquaculture, rice fields, and oil palm plantations.

Sustained monitoring of mangrove coverage provides baseline foundational data that helps to guide policy decisions that are crucial to avoid further loss of these precious ecosystems. Researchers are increasingly using remote sensing technologies to better observe mangrove ecosystems, making use of aerial tools such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like drones.

 The cost-effectiveness of UAVs, combined with their ability to provide imagery from small or inaccessible areas, meaning they have potential to revolutionise conservation management beyond the capabilities of more traditional research methods such as field surveys, satellite imagery, and manned aircrafts.

Addressing inequity in aerial research

New research has found a sizeable disconnect between the sites where mangroves are located and the places from which aerial research is led.

In 21 of 72 studies (29%) examined in the paper, the research site was in a different country to that of the lead institution. 8 of these 21 studies (38%) included a co-author from a local institution.

The research was conducted only on English-language studies. The authors acknowledge this issue of data findability, highlighting that existing aerial mangrove observations and research conducted in languages other than English may not be integrated into global baseline datasets. 

That said, the disparity suggests a trend of ‘helicopter research’, the process by which researchers from high-income countries conduct field research in lower-income countries without local researchers being involved in the study or benefitting from the results.

According to the authors, the lack of aerial research for mangrove monitoring in low-income countries is likely the result of a myriad of factors including government restrictions, limited financial and technical resources, software languages, and data findability and accessibility.

Capacity building and technology transfer

Sara Pruckner, Programme Officer, UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), and co-author of the paper said: “UAVs are still an emerging technology. Researchers have a real chance to avoid trends of ‘helicopter research’ in monitoring mangroves, ensuring low-income countries and their communities are not bypassed in the monitoring of their own precious ecosystems.”

The research finds that more must be done to share methods and data, promote effective partnerships, and implement training to ensure equitable access to aerial tools for mangrove monitoring. Effective partnerships have been seen to promote data repatriation and findability, ensuring that data is held by in-country institutions or hosted on national data platforms to encourage accessibility and use for local decision making.

Increasing the percentage of studies that include local co-authors when lead institutions are foreign will support the goals of capacity building and technology transfer outlined in the UNFCCC and UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.  

‘Challenges and recommendations for equitable use of aerial tools for mangrove research’ is written by experts from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UNEP-WCMC, University of California and Colorado State University.