Satellite mapping could help avert whale-ship crashes

Naval training exercises off the coast of California could pose a threat to endangered marine mammals.
A new satellite mapping program could help avert collisions between whales and ships . Photo courtesy NOAA.

‘No ship captain or shipping company wants to strike a whale’

Staff Report

Satellite data about whale movements and ocean conditions have helped scientists create monthly whale hotspot maps that could help avert collisions between ships and marine mammals.

Developed by researchers with NOAA Fisheries, Oregon State University and the University of Maryland, the WhaleWhatch program alerts ships where there may be an increased risk of encountering these endangered whales.  NASA helped fund the project, which draws on ocean observations from NASA and NOAA satellites.

NOAA Fisheries is publicly posting the maps on its West Coast Region website each month. A new scientific paper published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology describes the development of the WhaleWatch system and the methodology behind it.

“We’re using the many years of tag data to let the whales tell us where they go, and under what conditions,” said Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist at NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author of the new paper. “If we know what drives their hotspots we can more clearly assess different management options to reduce risk to the whales.”

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to predict whale densities on a year-round basis in near-real time,” said Helen Bailey, the WhaleWatch project leader at the University of Maryland Center. Bailey, who specializes in studying the movements of marine mammals and hopes the same approach will be used for other species of whales. “We hope it’s going to protect the whales by helping inform the shipping industry.”

Blue whales are listed as an endangered species, although their population has increased in recent years. Earlier research has found that shipping lanes to and from Los Angeles and San Francisco overlap with important blue whale foraging hotspots, putting whales at risk of fatal ship strikes.

Studies have found that ships off the West Coast strike an average of about two blue whales a year, although some ship strikes probably go unnoticed.

“No ship captain or shipping company wants to strike a whale,” said Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks ship traffic into and out of Southern California ports. “If we can provide good scientific information about the areas that should be avoided, areas the whales are using, I think the industry is going to take that very seriously and put it to use.”

Maps produced by the model may also prove useful to fishermen who want to reduce the risk of whales becoming entangled in lines attached to crab traps or other gear.

The strength of WhaleWatch is more than a decade of tracking data collected by Bruce Mate of Oregon State University and his team for more than 100 blue whales from 1994 to 2008. Hazen used computer models to look for relationships between the movements of the whales and environmental factors such as ocean temperature, chlorophyll concentrations and other factors.

“Nobody has ever had a database like this for any whale anywhere in the world,” Mate said. “These aren’t guesstimates of how whales may respond to certain conditions, but actual data on how they did respond, which improves the accuracy of the predictions.”

Funding for the research was provided by NASA, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Smithsonian Institution Climate and Response Program and by NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment Program. The tagging of whales was funded through Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

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