It has been a bad winter for the whales.
While the total number of whales washed ashore — beached — on the East Coast since January is lower than in recent years, the quick succession of deaths over the past few months is “unusual,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the body that monitors and sets regulations to protect whales in the US, told the New York Times late last month.
The majority of the 22 beached whales on the East Coast found this season died from ship strikes, or collisions with vessels. Every year, cargo, cruise, and fishing vessels kill an estimated 20,000 whales. These ship strikes are a result of the overlap between whale feeding grounds and maritime shipping lanes, and an increase in vessels on the ocean, says Douglas McCauley, the director of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory. Other human-caused dangers — namely noise pollution and climate change — are also contributing to whale deaths, McCauley added.
McCauley’s lab allows anyone anywhere to submit issues of concern affecting our oceans, like ship strikes, on its website. The laboratory team then selects submissions, studies them, and builds solutions to address the issues.
“It’s a big ocean, but, unfortunately, in many parts of the world, ships and whales overlap in the same space,” said McCauley. This is why the laboratory, along with a team of scientists from around the world, developed Whale Safe.
Whale Safe is a tool that tracks both whales’ and cargo ships’ movements, and then shares this data publicly and with shipping companies. Speed matters. When ships go slower, they’re able to avoid or at least decrease the severity of collisions with whales. Shipping companies receive grades from Whale Safe based on how well they adhere to NOAA-recommended speeds in waters where whales are active.
I spoke with McCauley to discuss ship strikes, the science behind Whale Safe, and the importance of ocean conservation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How is this data collection preventing collisions between whales and ships?
On the front end, for detecting the whales, Whale Safe uses a three-part system. One is an underwater hydrophone that is equipped with some onboard computing and AI that is constantly listening for whales, and then automatically detecting when they’re present.
The second tech node is a remote sensing feature, sort of like a weather forecaster for whales. Then based on past tracking where people have put microsensors on whales, we use that data to build a forecast of whether it’s more or less likely to expect to see endangered whales — specifically blue whales, one of the most endangered whales — in the area. Lastly, humans are some of the best technology out there for whale detection. So we use a citizen science app that actually pulls in data when people see whales.
On the back end, we track the ships to tell when they slow down and what companies they’re connected to. And then the same way that on campus we assign grades, we assign grades here, transparently, to the different companies based on whether they slow down when there are whales present. We publish those grades and have conversations with the companies about ways that they can actually do better for whale conservation.
I was hoping you could explain why you think it is just as important to collaborate with private entities as it is to work on the public policy side of things.
Some of this has been a learning process for me, as someone who knows a lot about whales and other creatures of the sea, and not so much about how things work with our own species. But part of that learning journey was understanding the real power and opportunity there is for the private sector to be a force for change.
So realizing that, we really tried to jump in and engage with the businesses. By and large, it has been really positive. We create these report cards at the company level, and we share them with the companies. Many companies don’t want to run over whales, they want to know how to help, and they want to know how well they’re doing.
We have some A’s and we have some F’s; it’s been a little bit of a challenge to try to figure out how we get the companies that don’t seem to care about whale conservation to care the way their peers care.
It’s great to hear that some of these companies are really wanting to collaborate. I’m sure we’ve just skimmed the surface of what the laboratory has worked on, but is there anything else that you think is important to mention?
Whales themselves are massive, living, beautiful, breathing, majestic boxes of carbon that capture and sequester carbon and then lock it away when they die in the deep ocean. Healthy whale populations create what’s called a whale pump, which means that when they eat at depth and then poop at the surface, they fertilize the surface waters, which then are more productive and suck down and sequester more carbon.
These ships that we’re asking to slow down when whales are around actually reduce their emissions the same way that cars driving a little bit slower drive more efficiently. One of the outcomes of this particular solution is that you get a win for the whales, but you also are getting a win for climate.
Outside of ship strikes, what other human-caused threats to whales are there?
Getting entangled by fishing gear is another leading cause of whale injury and death. Whales that get wrapped up in gear like the ropes of lobster pots or discarded nets can get horrific lacerations and sometimes end up starving or drowning.
Another major threat is underwater noise pollution generated from ships, oil and gas exploration, or military activities. These damaging and disorienting sounds can disrupt their ability to feed and communicate with one another.
But the elephant in the room is climate change. Climate change is causing the oceans to warm, become more acidic, and less rich in oxygen. This affects the food chains whales depend upon and will certainly impact how well whales are able to hang on.
The New York Times reported that this year on the East Coast, there has been what NOAA considers an unusual, quick succession of whale deaths. What factors, or combination of factors, do you believe are contributing to this concerning trend?
I think this article actually did a good [job] debunking suggestions (sometimes funded by oil and gas) that offshore wind development is linked to these whale deaths. The Marine Mammal Commission, a coalition of some of the best whale experts in the US and world, noted that there is no evidence to link this recent bout of deaths to offshore wind. This is not to say that we don’t need to be extremely careful where we site offshore wind installations and to monitor and control their impacts on marine life. This type of caution is needed with any new invasive development we put in the ocean. But carefully and intelligently installed offshore wind, in some areas, can be part of a solution to fight climate change. which in the long run poses a greater threat to ocean health.
Ship strikes and entanglement were noted to be associated with many of the dead whales that could be examined by marine mammal experts.
How can we continue to limit human-caused dangers to whales?
The good news is that these are solvable problems. Ship collisions with whales can be controlled by working with marine shipping to slow ships down to safer speeds in areas where there are lots of whales.
And there are new kinds of technologies available that reduce entanglement. For example, there are some very exciting new innovations that allow lobster fishers to continue to do business without all the ropes that have proven to be so lethal to whales.