Is your iPhone whale-safe? Smartphones, like many consumer products, arrive in the US on giant container ships, vessels that are leading killers of endangered whales that play crucial roles in the climate and ocean health. Now a high-tech initiative called Whale Safe is detecting the huge marine mammals off the coast of San Francisco and alerting ship captains to slow down to avoid deadly collisions.
Launched on Wednesday, Whale Safe aims to create “school zones” for imperilled blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales in busy shipping lanes, according to the project’s managers at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California at Santa Barbara and at the Bay Area’s Marine Mammal Center. Speeders are caught by satellite surveillance and cited online. That gives consumers the opportunity to see, for instance, if that cruise they’re contemplating is operated by a company with a history of ignoring sea speed limits. In the future, Whale Safe might award a label to retailers who sell products transported on ships that brake for cetaceans.
“No one wins when a ship comes into a port with an endangered whale wrapped around its bow right below the brand name of the company,” says Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory. “The phone that I’m talking to you on now has a connection to cargo ships that I think is under-appreciated. There is a consumer connection to whale conservation here.”
Weighing 160 tons, blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived, but they’re no match for a 200,000-ton cargo ship. California is home to three of the nation’s busiest ports and a hotspot for ship-related whale deaths. Scientists estimate that more than 80 endangered whales are killed annually by ship strikes off the West Coast, though only 5% to 17% of carcasses are recovered as most sink to the ocean floor.
That death toll has implications for climate change. Researchers have discovered that whales sequester large volumes of carbon dioxide in their bodies, while their excrement spawns blooms of phytoplankton that produce half of the world’s oxygen and are the foundation of the marine food web.
How Whale Safe works
With the rapidly warming ocean reducing whales’ prey populations and altering their migratory routes, curtailing ship strikes is critical to the animals’ survival, according to scientists. A federal assessment of blue whale stocks in 2019 found that losing more than 1.2 individuals that year from accidents like ship collisions would threaten the sustainability of the population. That year there were two confirmed incidents of blue whales killed by ship strikes off California, with more deaths likely undetected.
After a record number of whales died from ship collisions in California waters in 2018 and 2019, the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory led efforts to start the Whale Safe pilot program in the Santa Barbara Channel. The area is a shipping superhighway for freight bound to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and an ecologically rich smorgasbord of prey for endangered whales that migrate up and down the California coast.
In 2020, scientists deployed a technology-packed buoy developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. A microphone called a hydrophone sits on the ocean floor and listens for the sounds of whale vocalisations. If the hydrophone detects whale chatter, it sends the data to a computer housed in a buoy. An AI program identifies the species in near real-time by comparing its vocalisations with a library of thousands of whale recordings. The detection is beamed by satellite to scientists who confirm the finding before posting it on the Whale Safe website and automatically sending it to shipping companies that subscribe to the whale feed.
The alert system also includes physical sightings of the marine mammals as well as a feature that McCauley likens to a whale weather forecast. An algorithm analyses real-time data on ocean conditions and information from 104 satellite-tagged blue whales to predict their likely presence.
In the Bay Area, scientists placed the buoy offshore of San Francisco, where there were six confirmed ship strikes of endangered whales last year. When McCauley inspected that buoy on Monday, he spotted nine humpbacks feeding in south-bound shipping lanes. “There’s just a huge amount of ship traffic that comes through this constrained space, which unfortunately also happens to be a really important buffet area for whales,” McCauley said.
On Thursday morning, Whale Safe reported a “very high presence” of whales off San Francisco: 12 humpback sightings as well as acoustic detections, plus blue whales vocalising in the area. The forecast for whales in the Santa Barbara Channel was “high,” with sightings of 41 humpbacks and detection of their songs.
McCauley says there were five documented ship strikes of endangered whales in Southern California and four deaths in 2019, including a blue whale found wrapped around the bow of a cruise ship as it entered the Port of Long Beach. Incidents declined to two strikes and one death in 2020, the first year of the buoy’s operation, and last year there were no reports of whale collisions or deaths in the Santa Barbara Channel.
“I want to see that stay at zero for a decade before I claim that there’s an important contribution that has been made here, but this is happy news,” he says.
Stopping speeding ships
As whales come closer to shore in search of prey that is disappearing from warming oceans, scientists say climate change is increasing the threat of collisions with ships in San Francisco Bay. “They’re following the fish,” Kathi George, director of field operations and response at the Sausalito, California-based Marine Mammal Center, said at a press conference Wednesday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asks large ships to slow to 10 knots (11.5 miles per hour) when they travel through the Santa Barbara Channel and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco during the whales’ summer feeding season. A 2021 study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science estimated that whale deaths in the Santa Barbara Channel could fall by up to a third if 95% of ships complied with the speed limits.
Whale Safe analyses location data broadcast by ship transponders to determine if vessels are slowing down and assigns a letter grade that rates companies’ compliance. About 61% of ships adhere to the recommended speed limit in the Santa Barbara Channel and 62% in the Farallones marine sanctuary, according to George.
France’s CMA CGM SA, the world’s third largest container shipping company, receives data directly from Whale Safe and alerts captains when they need to reduce their speed. Claire Martin, the company’s vice president of sustainability, said that 80% of ships comply with the alerts; when they don’t, it’s usually related to weather conditions.
McCauley said deploying additional buoys would allow for more precise detection of endangered whales. The buoys, however, cost about $250 000 to build and $200 000 annually to operate. Funding an expansion of Whale Safe got easier on Wednesday when the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory’s benefactors, Salesforce Inc founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff, announced a $60 million gift to UC Santa Barbara to support the laboratory’s work.
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