Reducing Whale Strikes
Whale conservation emerged as a recurring theme during our first idea crowdsourcing campaign, and we were specifically inspired by the submissions “Reduce collisions between whales and ships” and “Protecting blue whales and blue skies.” The Benioff Ocean Initiative has committed $1.5 million to find and implement new solutions to reduce collisions between large cargo ships and whales.
Whales are among the largest creatures on earth and play vital roles in maintaining healthy underwater ecosystems. Yet, intensive whaling over the past 200 years has brought many populations to the brink of extinction, and today many species remain threatened or endangered. Although hunting has decreased dramatically over the last century, a new danger threatens whales – massive cargo ships.
Ship strikes are currently a leading cause of death for large whales, and scientists estimate that over 80 blue, humpback, and fin whales are killed by vessel collisions on the West Coast of the United States each year. Ship strike risk is especially high in the Santa Barbara Channel off the central coast of California. In the Channel, plentiful feeding grounds for blue and humpback whales overlap with busy shipping lanes transited by thousands of vessels each year. As global maritime traffic continues to increase, it is critical that we implement solutions now to protect endangered whales.
To address this growing problem, the Benioff Ocean Initiative is accelerating research aimed at developing and implementing new solutions to curtail ship strikes and reduce whale mortality.
Four teams of scientists have been funded to collect fine-scale, near real-time data on whales in the Santa Barbara region, using acoustic monitoring devices, thermal imaging cameras, and predictive modeling. New datastreams will significantly improve our understanding of where whales are, providing managers and the shipping industry with timely information to reduce the risk of fatal ship strikes. Once established, this will serve as the West Coast’s first real-time actionable whale notification system.
The Research Team
Real-Time Acoustic Detection of Whales: Dr. Mark Baumgartner from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is deploying a passive acoustic monitoring buoy to identify, classify, and report the sounds of blue, humpback, and fin whales in near real-time.
Blue Whale Predictive Modeling: Dr. Elliott Hazen and Dr. Briana Abrahms are leading a team of researchers from UC Santa Cruz and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center to develop a fine-scale dynamic model that uses ocean data to make daily predictions of blue whale density and distribution at a spatial resolution of 10km.
Acoustics Tailored for California Whales: Dr. Ana Širović from Texas A&M (previously UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography) is preparing for the deployment of a real-time acoustic monitoring system in California by using underwater recordings to characterize the sound signature of regionally important whale species and populations.
Detecting Hot Whales in a Cold Ocean: Dr. Daniel P. Zitterbart from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution designed and installed a cost-effective thermal imaging system to automatically detect heat given off by warm-blooded whales’ spouts and bodies, day or night, against the background of a cold ocean.