Researchers Design a Tool to Help Protect Blue Whales From Ship Collisions

A team of researchers has developed a tool called WhaleWatch, designed to help ships avoid areas with endangered whales. The system uses a combination of satellite data and local ocean conditions to designate whale hotspots in real time. The details are in a paper that was just published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) are the largest animals on the planet but are endangered, partially because of early whaling operations that nearly drove them to extinction. Whales, including blue whales, sometimes strike ships—which is dangerous for both the whales and the people onboard. On the West Coast of the United States, ships collide with blue whales every year. Blue whales can be tracked with satellite technology but they’re also highly migratory, making it difficult to predict exactly where they’ll end up.

Researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Maryland collaborated with NOAA Fisheries to develop a better method for preventing dangerous ship collisions with blue whales. NASA also helped fund the project and provided their databases. The team analyzed years of data from satellite tagging to learn the whales’ usual movement patterns. They then combined this information with data from satellites that had been used to track local ocean conditions. By combining the data, the team was able to use mathematical models to predict where blue whales were likely to migrate to in addition to the population density in those areas. The team’s tool, named WhaleWatch, also recorded whale “hotspots” so that ships could potentially change their routes to avoid striking whales. WhaleWatch allowed researchers to predict whale population densities in specific areas with nearly real time accuracy.

The WhaleWatch tool can help protect endangered blue whales from dangerous ship collisions. The team believes that shipping companies are likely to use the information and follow guidelines since hitting a whale is bad for both involved parties. The researchers hope that WhaleWatch will aid whale conservation efforts.

REFERENCE

Hazen et al. WhaleWatch: a dynamic management tool for predicting blue whale density in the California Current. Journal of Applied Ecology (2016).

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