Researchers have developed a new forecasting model that aims to avoid the sometimes deadly collisions between blue whales and ships along the U.S. West Coast. The work combines data from satellite tags with satellite observations of ocean conditions to create a system for predicting “whale hotspots” that boats can avoid.
The scientific team working on the project—a group from NOAA Fisheries, Oregon State University and the University of Maryland—is aleady using the system, called WhaleWatch, to post maps of the hotspots on the NOAA Fisheries website. As well as informing shipping companies, the maps may also be used by fishermen trying to lessen the chances of whales getting entangled in fishing nets.
“We’re using the many years of tag data to let the whales tell us where they go, and under what conditions,” said Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist at NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author of a new scientific paper describing the work. “If we know what drives their hotspots, we can more clearly assess different management options to reduce risk to the whales.” According to the researchers, it’s the first time that whale densities have been predicted “on a year-round basis in near-real time.”
Collisions between ships and blue whales off the West Coast occur on average around twice a year, though some strikes are likely not recorded. The researchers are hoping the new prediction system will ensure, as much as possible, that our vessels stay out of the whales’ way.
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