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Resource Issues: Aircraft, Model Aircraft, & Drones

drone aircraft over surfOverview of the Issue:

Marine animals, such as sea lions, seals, otters, whales, and birds are found throughout the sanctuary. While some use water and land areas near human populations, most prefer remote habitats, free of disturbance from human activity. Seabirds are often the most sensitive to human disturbance and select coastal cliffs and offshore rocks as preferred resting and nesting sites. Seals and sea lions often share these same or similar remote sites to avoid human activities that startle them, causing stress and serious physiological responses to that stress. Severe and/or repeated disturbance of wildlife can interrupt feeding and sleeping patterns, resulting in weight loss, fatigue, weakened immune systems, sickness, and even death. Sudden disturbances can flush animals off rookeries and nesting colonies, causing direct injury and mortality to eggs and young animals as adults scramble in panic. Disturbances can cause indirect injury by exposing eggs and young animals to cold, heat, predators, dehydration, starvation, and stress during the absence of adult protectors.

drone aircraft with camera model aircraft

Motorized aerial vehicles, whether traditionally piloted aircraft or unmanned aircraft systems (e.g. model aircraft, quadcopters, drones, etc.), can pose a special threat to marine animals due to their ability to access areas generally free of human presence. Aerial vehicles can appear suddenly and cause disturbance by sight, sound, and movement. To some wildlife, a hovering or circling aircraft or drone exhibits characteristics similar to a predator bird, such as a hawk, falcon or seagull. To other wildlife, the whir or hum of a motor is indicative of human presence - something most wild animals instinctively avoid for protection and self-preservation. They equate such disturbance as an immediate and serious threat, and their typical response is to flee quickly. Even if they remain, the animals often continue in an elevated alert posture, on guard against a potential return of the perceived threat. This takes a toll as well. Imagine the impact of a stranger frequently peering into the windows of your home at night. Even if no crime were ever perpetrated, the stress of such uncertain intrusion into your place of rest could begin to have significant effects on your stress level and health. It is no less the case for wild animals, particularly those preparing to give birth or raising young.

The sudden increase in availability and use of of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is requiring special attention by natural resource managers across the United States, both in the marine and terrestrial environment.

aircraft flying along delta

How is the Sanctuary involved?

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) addresses overflight disturbance through a mix of educational outreach, regulatory, and enforcement approaches. Educational outreach efforts are described in greater detail under Resource Issues: Wildlife Disturbance.

Sanctuary regulations explicitly prohibit harassment of marine mammals, turtles, and birds by any means, including disturbance from the air. All of the marine mammal and turtle species, and most birds that frequent the sanctuary, are also protected under the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, or Migratory Bird Treaty Act everywhere within the United States and its territories.

In addition to the general prohibition against disturbance of marine mammals, turtles, and birds, sanctuary regulations prohibit the operation of motorized aircraft (including model aircraft, quadcopters, drones, etc.) within within four NOAA regulated overflight zones in the sanctuary. If a flying apparatus of any kind has a motor, then it must remain above 1000 feet altitude within the four zones. The zones include coastal waters from the mean high tide line seaward to distances of up to 5 nautical miles offshore. For more information about NOAA overflight regulations within MBNMS and other marine sanctuaries on the west coast, visit the National Marine Sanctuaries webpage “Pilots: Know Before You Go!”.

Sanctuary regulations allow for the operation of piloted aircraft or unmanned aircraft systems within NOAA regulated overflight zones if aircraft operators receive prior authorization from MBNMS. Permit requests are evaluated based upon the design and purpose of proposed low-altitude flight operations. Permits have been issued in the past for research and education flights that benefit sanctuary resource protection and management. Permits include conditions that limit collateral impacts to wildlife from flight operations. Some flight operations for production of television commercials and movies have been authorized where strict controls and careful planning prevent direct and incidental disturbance of wildlife in the project area. To request a permit to operate any motorized aircraft, including UAS/drones, in NOAA regulated overflight zones, go to the MBNMS webpage for permit requests.

NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries occasionally conducts aircraft operations within a sanctuary using traditional aircraft or UAS, generally for research or general surveillance purposes. MBNMS applies constraints upon its own aircraft operations when they are conducted within the NOAA regulated overflight zones. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has been testing a 13-pound UAS known as the "Puma" for several years to determine how this remotely controlled aircraft can aid in large-scale marine protected area management. The system is being tested in several marine sanctuaries around the country, and requires detailed mission planning, as well as flight authorization by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It represents the next development in marine resource monitoring, since it is cheaper, greener, and safer than manned flights.

The question of UAS/drone operation across the country (including over marine protected areas) is receiving considerable discussion and debate. If a need arises to update sanctuary regulations or regulatory definitions to better manage UAS activities within MBNMS, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries will provide information on this website and elsewhere.

For questions and answers about FAA policy regarding unmanned aircraft systems (e.g. model aircraft and drones), visit FAA’s website.


Reviewed: September 08, 2023
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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