New Tool Predicts the Presence of Blue Whales

Historical data and computer modeling combine to warn ships of potential collisions with the giant creatures.

West Coast blue whales may one day be a bit safer from being struck by ships, thanks to a new tool that predicts where the giant cetaceans will be.

Dubbed WhaleWatch, the system was developed by researchers from NOAA Fisheries, the University of Maryland, and Oregon State University, who have just published details about it in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

The system takes advantage of more than 10 years of satellite data from blue whales that have been tagged by scientists studying the animal's behavior and feeding habits.

The data is then used by computer modeling programs to map out potential blue whale "hotspots" for given places and times. Those locations are collated on monthly maps that the researchers say can be used to alert the shipping industry about collision areas a vessel could encounter.

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"This is the first time that we've been able to predict whale densities on a year-round basis in near-real time," Helen Bailey, the WhaleWatch project lead, in a statement.

"No ship captain or shipping company wants to strike a whale," said Marine Exchange of Southern California Executive Director Kip Louttit. His firm monitors ships arriving and departing from area 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."

Blue whales, classified as endangered on the IUCN "red list" of threatened species, are hit by ships a couple of times a year, the researchers estimate. The creatures are almost 100 feet long and are the biggest animals ever known. They feed on krill in the California Current (running southward along the West Coast), and their foraging waters sometimes overlap key shipping lanes used by vessels moving between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Studies have shown the aquatic giants are ill equipped to quickly move out of the path of ships.

Now, the researchers write, using the predictive tools "shipping traffic could be adjusted to alternate shipping lanes or could have mandatory speed restrictions implemented" when it looks like whales and ships could come too close to each other. "Periods of high risk," they add, "could trigger additional marine mammal monitoring to validate the occurrence of whales and enforce any speed restriction rules."

"The predictive model presented here," say the scientists of their study, "provides a critical step towards developing seasonal and dynamic management approaches to help reduce the risk of ship strikes for blue whales in the California Current."

NOAA has begun posting monthly WhaleWatch maps on its west coast fisheries website.

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