UCSB’s Benioff Ocean Initiative launches online tool to save whales
Whales aren’t the only large creature in the ocean; there’s also cargo ships. When the two collide, it’s fatal to whales and barely noticeable to large ships cruising through the Santa Barbara Channel.
That’s why UCSB’s Benioff Ocean Initiative set out to help the endangered species in 2017 with an online tool called Whale Safe, that predicts the presence of whales in the channel. It helps inform ship captains to slow down to avoid hitting a whale.
Whale Safe launched Sept. 17 with a small virtual kickoff event.
“There’s been a lot of activity of both ships and whales since we launched,” said Morgan Visalli, BOI scientist and project lead.
The Port of Los Angeles is the world’s busiest port, and many ships travel through the Santa Barbara Channel to access it.
“It’s interesting that the international shipping lanes go through the channel, because it leads to quite an overlap of ships and whales,” she said. “It’s a really busy piece of the ocean.”
Whale Safe tracks activity through a few measurements. Whale watching boats are encouraged to report a whale sighting through an app called Whale Alert. Professionals, like the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps, report sightings in another app.
Then, BOI partnered with teams from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Texas A&M University Galveston to create and deploy a large buoy with a microphone that measures whale calls. The sea surface temperature is measured as well.
Those tools, alongside scientific knowledge of whale migration, allows Whale Safe to predict the presence of whales. The site displays a meter to show the risk of hitting a whale, much like National Parks assess fire risk.
The Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a voluntary speed limit of 10 knots to reduce whale strikes, but less than half of the ships follow the guidance.
Whale Safe publishes automated report cards for shipping companies, calculated by measuring the portion of travel they follow the voluntary speed limit. Ms. Visalli hopes to spread this information so businesses can be aware if their products are imported sustainably.
“Maybe one day, we’ll be able to buy whale-safe products the way we buy dolphin-safe tuna,” she said.
Currently, the rate of whale strikes is too high to sustain the population of endangered blue, fin and humpback whales.
“Whales are really important for marine biodiversity. They are ecosystem engineers and help move nutrients throughout the ocean,” she said. “And they actually help to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ocean because their body mass is so much carbon.”
When ships slow down, they release less harmful gas.
“We experience all the pollutants that come off of the marine shipping in the channel, so when these ships slow down, it’s good for the whales but also all the coastal communities, as well,” she said.
Ms. Visalli moved to the Santa Barbara area in 2012 for graduate school at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.
In 2014, she became a California Sea Grant State Fellow at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The fellowship made her aware of whale strikes, and she knew she wanted to find a solution.
She joined BOI in 2017 and was assigned project lead for the whale strike project. It’s the first flagship mission launched by BOI, though the initiative tackles multiple issues at once.
The team has set aside funds for the Whale Safe project for years to come, and Ms. Visalli anticipates a lot of outreach work. She wants mariners as well as community members to learn about whale strikes.
“To get change around any issue, it requires that folks know about it and understand the issue. Even just understanding that it’s an issue that we have in our ocean backyard is a first step,” she said.
The project measures locally, but also has global potential.
“Whale ship strikes happen all over the world, but they often happen in these busy coastal areas like the Santa Barbara Channel with a large feeding ground and a high commercial shipping presence,” she said.
She’s not advocating for an end to commercial shipping, just a safer process.
“There’s tons of jobs associated with the ports, so it’s finding a balance between finding solutions to allow maritime commerce to continue and also protect these important whale habitats,” she said.
BOI started in 2016 after a $10 million donation from Marc and Lynne Benioff to promote science-based problem solving of the ocean’s issues. Scientists crowdsource problems and partner with other universities to solve them.
To learn more, visit boi.ucsb.edu.