Scientists hope warning system along NorCal coast will protect whales from ship strikes

Friday, May 12, 2023
Warning system working to keep whales safe along CA coast
Scientists hope a newly implemented warning system along the California coast will protect passing whales from deadly ship strikes.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- If whales could shout out their own warnings to passing ships, it might sound a bit like what's currently being captured by an alert system being deployed to protect them.

Now, that sophisticated system is a key part of a voluntary vessel speed reduction request, designed to prevent deadly collisions along a newly expanded stretch of our coastline.

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"It used to be just in Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries, but now it (also) includes...all of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and that's almost 1,000 square miles had been added to the to the speed reduction zone," said Michael Carver, operations coordinator with NOAA and the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

He says the effort to protect passing whales from ship strikes involves a combination of both looking and listening. Last year, ABC7 showed you a new system of acoustic buoys developed by the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, and deployed with the help of the Marine Mammal Center and other Bay Area partners. It uses artificial intelligence and underwater eavesdropping to alert ships and researchers to the presence of whales.

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This gray whale is one of eight that's believed to have come through the Golden Gate Strait this year, which scientists say is unusual and concerning.

"So we have real-time acoustic listening devices on those," Carver said. "And what those are doing is sort of what I like to say giving us like a Twitter, real-time feed of information of what's going on out there."

But he points to the human eyes, also trained on what's going on out there. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada recently glided through the Golden Gate, carrying a team of NOAA researchers. The ongoing marine surveys will help establish the populations migrating off our shore, as well as the ecosystem supporting them.

"So they're going to collect a ton of data and spend months analyzing," Carver said. "For example, they deploy nets and tow for krill. And so they'll go through and grad students will count each and every single sample and figure out what's in there."

Still, accurately predicting the path of migrating whales is a complicated task. Callie Leiphardt is a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at U.C. Santa Barbara. Their team also has the acoustic alert system deployed around the marine sanctuary at the Channel Islands, more than 300 miles south of the Golden Gate.

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A researcher at the Marine Mammal Center who has been watching SF Bay for decades says, lately, there's been a lot more to keep an eye on.

"We all have the same common goal to help protect and keep track of these whales and so information, to share it through the government channels, the whale watching companies are really good about posting what they've been seeing and kind of keeping track of it because they're out looking for these whales every single day, too," Leiphardt said. "So I think there's a really good open communication network along whale researchers and naturalist in California."

They point out the voluntary speed reduction is only effective when ships comply. Carver says the program has made significant progress since its launch.

"In 2015, we saw cooperation around 20 to 25%. And now we're in the low 60s," Carver said. "And for those vessels that we've engaged with, our Blue Whales Blue Skies Program, we're approaching nearly 80% cooperation. So we've really seen a large uptick."

The program is building enough momentum that there is currently a bill working its way through the state assembly to expand the vessel speed reduction program in the national marine sanctuaries to the broader coast of California.

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