Cargo Vessels Are Killing More Whales — A New Effort Aims to Save Them
By Tara Lohan
A blue whale can weigh as much as 200 tons and consume 12,000 pounds of krill in a single day. But even the largest animal on Earth doesn't stand a chance against a fast-moving cargo ship.
Collisions between whales and shipping vessels are especially prevalent in areas where whale habitat overlaps with busy port traffic, such as the Santa Barbara Channel. This 70-mile stretch of water between mainland California and the Northern Channel Islands is a thoroughfare for thousands of cargo ships going to and from the busy ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. It's also a hotspot for endangered and threatened whales.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has instituted voluntary slow-speed zones, but whale-ship strikes have still been on the rise for the past few years.
To reverse that trend, a group of scientists from all over the country have collaborated on a new project spearheaded by U.C. Santa Barbara's Benioff Ocean Initiative. Whale Safe, a technology-based mapping and analysis tool, provides near real-time data on whale activity in the Santa Barbara Channel in the hope of reducing fatal whale-ship collisions.
We spoke to Morgan Visalli, the science lead at the Benioff Ocean Initiative, about how the technology works and what the public can do to help hold shipping companies accountable.
Why is something like Whale Safe needed?
Many whale species thankfully are recovering from the days of intensive whaling, when they were hunted to the brink of extinction. But now they're facing other threats from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
The Santa Barbara Channel, where we've launched Whale Safe, is a really important feeding ground for blue, humpback and fin whales — all species that are either endangered or threatened. Those three species are the ones that we're focusing on with this first launch of the project.
The past two years were some of the worst on record for ship strikes off the West Coast of the United States. Even worse, the number that we actually see recorded in the data is likely a small percentage of the actual number of ship strikes that occurred.
Scientists estimate that only about 5% to 17% of whale carcasses are actually observed and recorded. So if we see 13 whale carcasses that wash up on the beach, as was the case last year on the West Coast of the United States, it's likely that that could actually be closer to 130 ship strikes that occurred.
What's the best way to reduce or eliminate whale-ship collisions?
One way to address this issue is to separate ships and whales. In some places it's possible to actually move shipping lanes away from areas of known whale concentrations, which can help reduce the risk of these strikes happening.
In the Santa Barbara Channel in 2013 they did move the shipping lanes one mile away from an area that is a known blue whale feeding hotspot. But unfortunately, the Santa Barbara Channel is a constrained waterway, and so there's really not too much more that can be moved. The next best option is slowing down.
Studies have shown that when ships slow down it reduces the probability of a strike happening by potentially giving the whale a bit more time to respond. And we've also found that slower speeds can reduce the lethality of the strikes.
How does Whale Safe work to try and alert ship captains to whales in the area?
1. Acoustic monitoring instruments identify whale vocalizations. 2. Observers record whale sightings with a mobile app. 3. Oceanographic data is used to predict where blue whales are likely to be. 4. The data streams are compiled and validated. 5. Whale information is disseminated to industry, managers and the public. Nicolle R. Fuller, Sayo Studio
There are three main components.
One is an acoustic listening station. Out in the Santa Barbara channel, our collaborators at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Texas A&M University at Galveston deployed an acoustic buoy that has an underwater microphone near the seafloor. There's a small computer that processes any audio that the microphone picks up.
It is able to automatically detect the calls of blue, humpback and fin whales. Then there's a surface buoy with a satellite transmitter that sends that information back to shore. It's then validated by a scientist on shore before it's added to the database.
Then the second piece is a blue whale habitat model. We use oceanographic data like sea-surface temperature and current to predict where blue whales are likely to be on any given day. That was developed by our collaborators at U.C. Santa Cruz, the University of Washington and NOAA Southwest Fishery Science Center.
It's a dynamic model that's running every day in an automated fashion and producing maps that show us blue whale hotspots.
The third piece is data gathered by community scientists who are out on whale-watching and tourism boats nearly every day. They use mobile apps such as WhaleAlert and Spotter Pro to record whale sightings that are also added to the database.
I know you've just launched this database, but what are you hearing from people in the shipping industry that may be using it or want to use it?
We did some interviews as we were building the system to get information from industry in terms of what information would be most helpful, how frequently they would like to receive data and what pathway they would like to receive data through.
Now we're working on building those relationships, making sure everybody knows that this information is available and also getting more feedback so we can continue to improve the system and tailor the data feeds to fit the needs of different folks within the industry.
One kind of communication pathway that could be really exciting to implement is getting the whale information piped into the charting system on the ship through the automatic identification system (AIS). It's the navigation and collision avoidance system that all of these large ships have on board.
Deploying the acoustic detection system in the Santa Barbara Channel near the shipping lanes in 2019. Benioff Ocean Initiative
There are quite a few challenges, both on the technological side and just the bureaucratic side, of actually getting the data delivered that way. It's their main safety and navigation tool, so you don't want it to be crowded with too much data and information. That would need to be done really thoughtfully. But that's a communication pathway that could really help get this data more easily adopted.
Right now there are voluntary slow-speed zones, but some ships aren't abiding by those recommendations. How likely do you think they'd be to adopt technology like Whale Safe?
A few years ago there was actually a NOAA-led working group that brought together many stakeholders to try to develop solutions. One of the recommendations that came out of that process was actually a call for new technology and more real-time data on whale activity. And that was supported by many members of the shipping industry that were part of that working group.
That helped to inform the approach that we decided to take. Some of these companies expressed that time is money, and if they're going to slow down, they want to make sure that they're slowing down because there are actually whales in the area.
Our hope is that this data can really help to reinforce those slow-speed zones, especially when there's high whale activity in the channel.
Whale Safe also provides data on how well companies are abiding by the slow-speed zones. But many of these shipping companies aren't consumer-facing, so how can this information be used by the public to pressure companies to make changes?
Big companies like Walmart, Target and Home Depot import a lot of stuff and use these shipping companies quite often. We're starting to have conversations with some of those retailers that are more public facing to see if there's information about whale safety that could be helpful for them as they're doing their planning around their sustainability portfolios.
And from the public standpoint, the more general awareness there is about the problem of whale-ship collisions, the more it helps public-facing companies know that this is something that they should prioritize in their sustainability planning.
We want people to know that whales are really important for global biodiversity and also as ecosystem engineers that help stabilize the food web. Whales are also important for coastal economies through whale watching and other tourism businesses. And they can help mitigate climate change. Studies have shown that they can actually help to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Besides whales being incredible creatures deserving of protection in their own right, there are multiple benefits that we see from keeping these populations strong and healthy in our global ocean.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
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