New tool helps ships identify blue whale hotspots in US West Coast

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New tool helps ships identify blue whale hotspots in US West Coast

December 04, 2016 - 04:46
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A combination of tracking data and satellite observations is being used to help ships in the West Coast of the US avoid collisions with blue whales.

A blue whale surfaces near a ship off the California Coast.

This new system, developed by researchers from NOAA Fisheries, Oregon State University and the University of Maryland, is called WhaleWatch. It combines the tracking data of more than 100 blue whales tagged between 1994 and 2008 with satellite observations of ocean conditions to come up with monthly maps of hotspots where there may be a higher risk of encountering these blue whales.

NOAA Fisheries then posts these maps online every month on its West Coast Region website.

Helen Bailey, the WhaleWatch project leader at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said, “This is the first time that we've been able to predict whale densities on a year-round basis in near-real time. We hope it's going to protect the whales by helping inform the shipping industry.”

She hopes to extend the project to other whale species in the future.

There are an average of two collisions between blue whales and ships in the West Coast every year. However, it is possible that some collisions go unnoticed. It has been found that the shipping lanes between Los Angeles and San Francisco overlap with major blue whale foraging hotspots.

“No ship captain or shipping company wants to strike a whale,” said Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks ship traffic into and out of Southern California 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."

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