GIS at the New England Aquarium

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The New England Aquarium is not only a premiere visitor attraction, but also a leader in ocean exploration and marine conservation. Located in Boston, the aquarium receives over 1.3 million visitors a year and is a major educational resource.

Researchers at the aquarium rely on GIS to conduct spatial analyses of marine animals and ecosystems. They are particularly focused on examining relationships between marine animals and their environments, as well as species behavior.

One of the aquarium’s major projects is an assessment of potential offshore aquaculture sites in the Gulf of Maine. As the world demand for fish protein increases, so does the need for aquaculture sites. The Gulf of Maine is appealing because it is home to one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. GIS is utilized to examine spatial and temporal patterns of shipping, fishing, and marine mammals in the area. Then, these patterns will be linked to an economic analysis to thoroughly analyze how a new aquaculture site would affect the existing ecosystem.

Another GIS project at the New England Aquarium is satellite tagging.  Satellite tags are GPS devices attached to an animal that transmit information concerning time, date, location, dive depths and more. This spatial information allows scientists to follow the well-being and patterns of both wild and released rehabilitated animals.


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Satellite tagging is also vital in studying species behavior. Here, aquarium scientists are particularly interested in documenting a species’ common habitat choice and seasonal behavior. It is also important to take geographic features into account to fully understand animal behavior: GIS is used to map seafloor depth and other oceanographic features.  Both datasets are then combined and analyzed as one.

Spatial data derived from the satellite tag of a white-sided dolphin.

Spatial data derived from the satellite tag of a white-sided dolphin.

Another issue the aquarium studies is entanglement of North Atlantic right whales. Although specific types of fishing gear that typically lead to entanglement have been identified, there is little research regarding geographically where whales are entangled. Scientists use both GIS and fishing vessel trip reports to specify common locations where entanglements occur in the Gulf of Maine. Then, they compare this location data to fishing activity and right whale distributions to identify high risk areas of entanglement.

The New England Aquarium combines multiple datasets to illustrate and analyze whale locations in the Gulf of Maine.

The New England Aquarium combines multiple datasets to illustrate and analyze whale locations in the Gulf of Maine.

Other GIS projects run by the New England Aquarium include mapping whale vessel strikes, monitoring liquefied natural gas, and hosting GIS summer camps for students. Information regarding GIS initiatives at the New England Aquarium can be found on the Marine GIS page.


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