New tool aims to reduce ship collisions with endangered whales in Santa Barbara Channel

UCSB’s Benioff Ocean Initiative has been working with a collaboration of scientists on tool called Whale Safe, a mapping and analysis tool designed for the shipping industry and displays near real-time whale presence information.

SANTA BARBARA—Research has shown ships and endangered whales can become a deadly combination. A coalition of scientists has been working on a tool called Whale Safe to help the two coexist with less danger for whales in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“We all depend on the marine shipping industry for so many of the goods we use, so trying to strike this balance where ships and whales can coexist in this really busy stretch of ocean,” said Morgan Visalli, University of California Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative’s Project Lead/Coordinator for Whale Safe.

The 70-mile channel is a feeding ground for multiple endangered whale species including blues, humpbacks and fins. It is also a bustling stretch of water for the marine shipping industry, as part of the route to the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, which together, rank as the world’s 9th busiest container port complex.

On Sept. 17, Whale Safe launched its online tool, with the goal of reducing the risk of fatal ship collisions with endangered whales.

“I’m hopeful the data coming out of Whale Safe will empower folks with the data they do need to stop these collisions from happening so we can protect these endangered species,” Visalli said.

The mapping and analysis tool uses acoustic detection, Blue Whale habitat modeling and visual sightings from trusted observers, such as the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps and whale watching and tourism vessels, to display near real-time whale and ship data for the Santa Barbara Channel. Whale Safe also includes an integrated whale presence rating of low, medium, high or very high.

“Whale Safe integrates all that data to produce a daily whale presence assessment that can then be used to form different ship routing or speed decisions or ship management decisions,” Visalli said.

Despite efforts to reduce fatal whale-ship collisions, including two speed reduction programs and a modified shipping lane route, 2018 and 2019 were the worst years on record for fatal whale-ship collisions off the west coast of the U.S, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Researchers say the actual number of ship strikes is likely much higher than the number recorded because of the low probability of detecting a whale carcass, with scientists estimating more than 80 endangered whales are likely killed by ship strikes off the west coast each year.

“Whales are of course beneficial for maintaining healthy marine ecosystems and coastal economies, they’re even important for addressing climate change, so the more we can do to help protect these endangered populations is really essential,” said Visalli.

Since 2017, Benioff Ocean Initiative has been working with scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Texas A&M University Galveston, the University of California Santa Cruz, University of Washington, and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center to create Whale Safe. The Benioff Ocean Initiative first began the project after receiving public interest in the issue. As part of their business model, the initiative crowd sources input on ocean issues people would like to see them work on.

“In 2017 we received multiple submissions around this issue of whale-ship collisions and many more submissions around marine conservation more generally and that’s what kind of first inspired us getting involved in this issue,” Visalli said.

Whale Safe also uses information from Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to display voluntary vessel speed reduction zones and to determine which vessels and companies best abide by NOAA’s voluntary speed recommendations.

Research from a study on the East Coast demonstrated ships that slow to 10 knots in areas with high whale presence significantly reduce the danger to whales. Typical ship speeds through the Santa Barbara Channel are 14-18 knots but there are two speed reduction programs in the Santa Barbara Channel.

With the tool up and running, Whale Safe is now focusing efforts on building out the communication pathways to get the data to the government partners who decide when to put slow speed zones in place, the shipping industry and port district officials.

“We’ve kind of been really focused on building out the data and building out the tool as a way to share the data, so now we’re kind of moving into this phase of more outreach and getting users on board,” Visalli said.

Whale Safe will be monitoring whale-ship collision data for 2020 as well as AIS data to determine if the tool is having an effect on fatal whale-ship collisions. Visalli said another factor that will play into the 2020 data is Covid-19, which limited the ability of researchers to go out and collect information on whale deaths.

“It’ll be interesting to see what the data shows for 2020, because of the pandemic, researchers haven’t been able to perform necropsies,” Visalli said.

For more information on Whale Safe or to access the online tool visit www.whalesafe.com.



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One thought on “New tool aims to reduce ship collisions with endangered whales in Santa Barbara Channel

  • Stanley Hetrick

    Whales can hear each other a 1,000 miles away. Or that’s what they said in the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island.
    Why not simply have a forward sonar at whale frequency on commercial vessels. Instead of sneaking up on them …



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