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Recent System Goals to Save Whales Near San Francisco From Ship Collisions

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THE PACIFIC OCEAN NEAR SAN FRANCISCO — Fran washed ashore in August, some 25 miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge. The beloved and much-photographed female humpback whale had a broken neck, most probably the result of being hit by a ship.

This latest instance of oceanic roadkill increased the tally of whales killed by ships near San Francisco this yr to 4. The true death toll is prone to be much higher as whale carcasses often sink to the ocean floor.

Scientists and conservationists try to drive that number to zero. On Wednesday, Whale Protected, an A.I.-powered detection system, began operating around San Francisco Bay. Its goal is to warn large ships in the realm’s waters when whales are nearby.

About 25 miles out to sea from the Golden Gate on Monday afternoon, a yellow buoy bobbed not removed from the good white shark hunting grounds of the Farallon Islands. On a ship close by called the Nova, Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative on the University of California, Santa Barbara, donned a wet suit and snorkel and jumped into the brine to provide the buoy some T.L.C. before its big day. The buoy, tethered to an underwater microphone, is an integral a part of Whale Protected.

Researchers estimate greater than 80 endangered blue, humpback and fin whales are killed by ships annually along the West Coast. With increasing global marine traffic, the issues created by 1000’s of massive ships crisscrossing waters that teem with ocean giants are expected to only worsen. Near San Francisco specifically, climate change has been shifting the whales’ food closer to shore, placing the whales in harm’s far more often, in response to Kathi George, field operations manager for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif.

That’s why Dr. McCauley and a network of collaborators developed Whale Protected with funding from Marc Benioff, founding father of Salesforce, and his wife, Lynne. Whale Protected, which has been operating within the Santa Barbara Channel since 2020, provides near-real-time data on the presence of whales and sends out alerts to mariners, shipping corporations and anyone else who signs up. The hope is that if ship captains get an alert saying there are a lot of whales in the realm, they could be more prone to shift course or slow their approach to port — a tactic that research suggests makes deadly collisions less likely.

“The near-real-time aspect of Whale Protected’s alerts and having the ability to have an idea of where whales are 24 hours a day is basically unique and offers us quite a bit more information to share with ships coming out and in of the Bay,” said Maria Brown, superintendent of the Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 2021, the primary full yr of Whale Protected’s operation within the Santa Barbara Channel, there have been no recorded whale-ship interactions in the realm, which Dr. McCauley called an encouraging sign.

Whale Protected also uses publicly available location data transmitted by ships to find out whether or not they slow right down to 10 knots during trips through the whales’ feeding grounds, something NOAA has been asking large ships to do during whale season (normally May to November off California) since 2014. Whale Protected processes the knowledge on vessel speed and assigns shipping corporations a letter grade.

Maersk, considered one of the world’s largest shipping corporations, earned a “B” for slowing down 79 percent of the time within the Santa Barbara Channel. But ships operated by Matson, a significant player in Pacific shipping, slowed only 16 percent of the time and received an “F.”

A spokesperson for Matson said the corporate had long instructed its ships to take part in NOAA’s voluntary speed reduction programs “to the best extent possible, given our operational requirements. A big percentage of our vessels have been averaging lower than 12 knots.”

On Monday afternoon on the buoy, Dr. McCauley used a kitchen scrubber and a plastic putty knife to scrape away algae and checked that various instruments were intact. The device’s underwater microphone was positioned some 280 feet beneath his flippers, listening for whales from the ocean bottom and attached to its floating counterpart’s communications array with a beefy rubber-clad cable. This high-tech buoy was developed by Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and his team is using the identical technology to listen for critically endangered North Atlantic Right whales along the East Coast.

Whale Protected uses three data streams: the buoy listens for and identifies the songs of blue, fin and humpback whales with an algorithm and beams its findings to a satellite; a mathematical model informed by present and past oceanographic and biological data predicts where blue whales are most probably to be; and citizen scientists and trained observers report whale sightings via an app called Whale Alert.

Whale Protected’s platform integrates these data sources and alerts ships to their likelihood of encountering whales that day.

In 2019, before the system’s Santa Barbara launch, 46 percent of vessels slowed down within the Southern California voluntary speed reduction zones, and now the share has risen to 60 percent in 2022. But those increases can be credited to a financial incentive program called Blue Whales Blue Skies that pays shipping corporations that decelerate for whales, in addition to greater than a decade of outreach from NOAA officials like Ms. Brown to shipping corporations.

Within the San Francisco area, cooperation rates with NOAA’s speed limits have been hovering around 62 percent for the last three years, and the hope is that Whale Protected will help get them higher.

“We need to industry to rise to the occasion voluntarily,” Ms. Brown said. “In the event that they can’t do this, our council has asked us to think about making these speed limits mandatory like they’re on the East Coast where they’ve 80 percent compliance.”

The response from shipping corporations has been encouraging, Dr. McCauley said, with among the world’s largest outfits asking for more information concerning the good or bad grade they received and on tips on how to get Whale Protected’s alerts to their fleets most efficiently.

CMA CGM, the world’s third largest container shipping company, has created an automatic pipeline to disseminate Whale Protected’s alerts straight to ship captains near the Santa Barbara Channel.

Whale Protected’s team can also be working with Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest shipbuilder, to bring the system’s data directly into the navigation systems of newly built ships, said Callie Steffen, a scientist on the Benioff Ocean Initiative and Whale Protected’s project leader.

Now that the system is switched on in two locations, Dr. McCauley said the immediate goal was to proceed outreach with corporations and check out to cut back whale fatalities from ship strikes to zero within the places where Whale Protected is working. Ms. Steffen and others aim to expand Whale Protected’s ship-speed monitoring to all areas of designated whale concern in america and Canada on each coasts.

On Monday, fog erased the horizon because the Nova motored away from the buoy. When the fog broke, the ocean ahead of the boat erupted with whale spouts and leaping sea lions. The boat cut its engines, and Dr. McCauley whipped out a camera with a protracted lens to attempt to discover among the nine humpbacks researchers spotted.

The air took on the fishy, primordial odor of whale breath as everyone on board marveled on the wildness on display. Then the radio crackled: Vessel Traffic Services, which manages ship movement out and in of the Bay, said the Nova needed to exit the shipping lane because a big vessel was coming through. The scientists radioed back that the large ship needed to be warned it was headed into an area where whales had been sighted.

While the Nova headed back to San Francisco, Dr. McCauley said that as he was framing up the feeding humpback whales for his photographs, he couldn’t help but consider the recently deceased Fran.

“That ought to have been her,” he said, with a slight catch in his voice.

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