New AI System To Save Lives Of Whales From Ship Collisions Near San Francisco

Fran reportedly washed ashore approximately 25 miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge in August. The much-photographed and beloved female humpback whale had broken its neck, most likely after it was hit by a big ship.

This most recent instance of oceanic road kill has increased the tally of whales killed by vessels close to San Francisco in 2022 to four.

The actual death toll is likely higher as whale carcasses sink to the sea’s floor. Scientists, as well as conservationists, are striving to drive the number to zero.

On Wednesday, Whale Safe, an AI-powered detection system, started operating in San Francisco Bay. Its idea is to warn large vessels in the waters when the whales are around.

On Monday, almost 25 miles out to the sea, away from the Golden Gate, a yellow buoy kept bobbing not very far from the Farallon Islands’ white shark hunting grounds.

Save Lives Of Whales From Ship Collisions
Image for representation purpose only

On a boat close by called the Nova, Dr Douglas McCauley, the director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative introduced by the University of California, donned a snorkel and wet suit and jumped straight into the brine to give the buoy some T.L.C. before the big day.

The buoy was tethered to a microphone (to be placed underwater), a crucial part of the Whale Safe.

Researchers estimate that over 80 endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales are killed by vessels every year on the West Coast. With rising global marine traffic, the issues created by thousands of massive ships crisscrossing waters that teem with ocean giants are expected to worsen.

Near San Francisco, climate change has steadily been bringing the whales’ foods closer to the shore, placing whales in harm’s way more often, per Kathi George, the field operations manager associated with the Marine Mammal Center based in Calif.

This is why Dr McCauley and collaborators developed a Whale Safe with substantial funding from Marc Benioff, the Salesforce founder, and Lynne, his wife. Whale Safe has been operating since 2020; it offers near-real-time data on whales and sends out alerts to mariners, shipping firms, or those who sign up.

The hope is that if captains of ships receive an alert saying there are lots of whales in the area, they might be more likely to shift course or slow their approach to the port — a strategy that research suggests can help prevent deadly collisions.

The almost-real-time feature of the Whale Safe’s prompt alerts and being able to have an idea of where whales are 24 hours each day is unique and permits more information to share with vessels that are coming out of and in the Bay, mentioned Maria Brown, the superintendent associated with the Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Expanding Whale Safe from the shipping lanes in Southern California to San Francisco is expected to cover California’s two busiest hubs and two epicentres of whale mortality from ship strikes.

In 2021, the first complete year of Whale Safe’s operation in the Santa Barbara Channel, there were no recorded whale-ship interactions, which Dr McCauley referred to as a good sign.

Whale Safe uses publicly available location data transmitted by vessels to observe whether they slow down to 10 knots via the whales’ feeding grounds, something the NOAA has been requesting large vessels to do during the whale season (typically off California from May to November) since 2014. Whale Safe processes information on a ship’s speed and assigns shipping firms a letter grade.

Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping firms, got a “B” for efficiently slowing down 79% of the time in the Santa Barbara Channel.

But vessels operated by Matson, one of the major players in Pacific shipping, slowed 16% of the time. So, it got an “F.”

A spokesperson associated with Matson said that the firm had long instructed its vessels to participate in NOAA’s voluntary speed reduction assignments to the maximum extent possible, given their operational needs. A large percentage of their ships report an average below 12 knots.

At the buoy on Monday, Dr McCauley took a kitchen scrubber and a plastic putty knife to scrape the algae. He found that the instruments were still intact.

The underwater microphone of the device was positioned about 280 feet beneath the flippers, listening for large whales from the bottom of the sea, and attached with a rubber-clad, beefy cable to the floating counterpart’s communications array.

The high-tech buoy was developed by Mark Baumgartner, associated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution based in Massachusetts. His team members are deploying the same technology to listen to the endangered whales of the North Atlantic Right often spotted along the East Coast.

Whale Safe utilizes three different data streams: the buoy can listen for and identify the songs of blue, fin, and even humpback whales with an advanced algorithm and then beams the findings to a satellite; a mathematical model that is informed by past and present biological and oceanographic data predicts where blue whales are likely to be; trained observers and citizen scientists report whale sightings through an app named the Whale Alert.

Whale Safe’s platform integrates the data sources and alerts vessels to the likelihood of encountering the giant whales that particular day.

In 2019, before the system’s Santa Barbara launch, 46% of vessels slowed down in the voluntary speed-reduction zones of Southern California, and the percentage has risen to 60% in 2022. But those increases can be credited to a financial incentive program called Blue Whales Blue Skies. This one pays shipping firms that slow down for whales and over a decade of outreach from NOAA officials such as Ms Brown to the shipping majors.

In San Francisco, the cooperation rates with NOAA’s speed limits have been around 62% for the past three years, and there’s hope that Whale Safe might get them higher.

Ms Brown mentioned that they hope the industry voluntarily rises to the occasion. If they are unable to do that, the council has asked to think of making speed limits compulsory; for instance, like there is on the East Coast, where they have to maintain 80% compliance.

The response from shipping firms so far has been encouraging, Dr McCauley added, with some of the most oversized outfits in the world seeking more information about the good/bad grades they got and how they can better receive

Whale Safe alerts fleets efficiently.

CMA CGM, the third-largest container shipping firm worldwide, has developed an automated pipeline to disseminate Whale Safe’s almost instantaneous alerts to captains close to the Santa Barbara Channel.

Whale Safe’s team is closely working with the world’s largest shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries, to capture the system’s data directly into the navigation systems of newly built vessels, said Callie Steffen, a scientist associated with the Benioff Ocean Initiative and also the leader of the Whale Safe’s project.

Now that the system is switched on in two different locations, McCauley mentioned that the primary goal was to consistently try outreach with firms to lower whale fatalities resulting from ship strikes to zero in places where Whale Safe is operating.

Steffen and others aim at expanding Whale Safe’s ship-speed monitoring to areas of designated whale concern in Canada and the U.S. on both coasts.

The fog erased the horizon on Monday as the Nova gradually motored away from the underwater buoy. As the mist broke, the vast sea ahead of the vessel erupted with sea lions and whale spouts.

The boat cut the engines, and Dr McCauley took out his camera with a long lens so he could identify a few of the nine humpbacks the researchers had earlier spotted.

The air took on the fishy odour of the whale’s breath as all those on board marvelled at the wildness on display. Then, on the radio, it was heard that Vessel Traffic Services, which manages the movement of ships in and out of the Bay, mentioned that the Nova had to exit the shipping lane as a massive vessel was coming through. The scientists said the big boat needed to be warned that it was headed into a zone where whales were sighted.

While the Nova sailed back to San Francisco, Dr McCauley stated that just as he was framing up the feeding magnificent humpback whales to take some photographs, he could not help but think of the deceased Fran.

He stated that that should’ve been her, with a little catch in the voice.

References: Newyork Times, Business Wire

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