SOLOMONS, MD (May 22, 2012)—A new project aims to reduce the number of whales entangled in fishing gear by identifying the areas they are most likely to visit. WhaleWatch uses satellite data and migration models of gray whales and several endangered species to identify high-risk areas and to help develop conservation policies for reducing ship strikes and entanglements off the West Coast of the United States. Gray whales are the species most often hit by ships and entangled in fishing gear.
“A first step in reducing these threats to whales is to have a better understanding of where the whales go," said WhaleWatch project leader Dr. Helen Bailey of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "We will be analyzing the largest satellite tracking dataset for large North Pacific whales and combining it with satellite-derived environmental data to provide us with key information on where and when the whales are found and why.”
Whaling has brought many whale species to the brink of extinction. Despite a ban on commercial whaling, there are still many human activities that can harm whales, such as collisions with ships, entanglements in cables and nets, and noise pollution. Satellite data of where the whales travel will be compared to shipping lanes, fishing efforts, and other activities to identify where high-risk areas occur.
Satellite tagging has the advantage that it provides an animal's-eye view of the whales’ movements. Combining these tracks with environmental data also helps to explain why particular areas are so important to the whales.
“We hope that the study shows any propensities for risk where there is strong overlap between whale migration routes and anthropogenic activities,” said Dr. Bruce Mate, professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University. “We know, for example, that the West Santa Barbara Channel off California is a place where blue whales feed and it is right in the middle of shipping lanes to the Los Angeles harbor. Identifying the seasonal trends, as well as the geographical movement, may help policymakers find ways to better protect the whales.”
Satellite-monitored tags were attached to gray whales and three endangered species--blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales--off the West Coast. Gray whales are well known for their incredible round-trip migrations of more than 10,000 miles each year from their feeding grounds in the northern Bering Sea to their breeding and calving areas off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. This brings them into contact with many threats along the coast of North America.
The WhaleWatch project will analyze this migration information using state-of-the-art statistical models to produce a near real-time tool for determining the occurrence of whales, which will identify hotspot areas and can be used to inform management policies and protect high-use areas.
The WhaleWatch project is a collaboration between Helen Bailey of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Bruce Mate of Oregon State University, and Steven Bograd, Daniel Palacios, Elliott Hazen, Karin Forney and Evan Howell from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service. This is the first year of the three-year project. The final WhaleWatch product will be available on the NOAA website.
The project is funded under the interagency NASA, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Smithsonian Institution Climate and Biological Response program, with the tagging efforts having been supported by the Tagging of Pacific Predators program and the Office of Naval Research.
Photo by Helen Bailey