Ships, noise, and climate change kill whales. Here’s how to fix that.

It’s been a bad winter for the whales.

While the total number of whales washed ashore — stranded — on the east coast since January is lower than in recent years, the rapid succession of deaths in recent months is “unusual,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Agency that monitors and regulates whales in the United States, the New York Times said late last month.

The majority of the 22 stranded east coast whales found this season died from ship attacks or collisions with ships. Cargo, cruise and fishing ships kill an estimated 20,000 whales each year. These ship strikes are a result of the intersection between whale feeding grounds and ocean shipping lanes and an increase in ships on the ocean, says Douglas McCauley, director of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory. Other human-caused hazards — namely noise pollution and climate change — also contribute to whale deaths, McCauley added.

Douglas McCauley is director of the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at UC Santa Barbara.

Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory

McCauley’s Lab allows anyone to report worrisome issues affecting our oceans on its website, such as: B. Ship strikes. The lab team then selects submissions, examines them, and develops 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,” McCauley said. That’s why the lab, together with a team of scientists from around the world, developed Whale Safe.

Whale Safe is a tool that tracks the movements of whales and cargo ships and then shares this data publicly and with shipping companies. speed matters. Slowing ships down allows them to avoid collisions with whales, or at least lessen their severity. Cruise lines receive Whale Safe ratings based on how well they adhere to NOAA recommended speeds in waters where whales are active.

I spoke to McCauley to discuss ship strikes, the science behind Whale Safe, and the importance of ocean conservation.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does this collection of data prevent collisions between whales and ships?

On the front end, Whale Safe uses a three-part system to detect whales. One is an underwater hydrophone equipped with an onboard computer and an AI that constantly listens for whales and then automatically detects when they are present.

The second technology node is a remote sensing function, a kind of weather forecast for whales. Based on previous tracking where people have attached microsensors to whales, we use this data to forecast whether endangered whales – particularly blue whales, one of the most endangered whales – are more or less likely to be seen in the region . After all, humans are some of the best technology for detecting whales. So we use a citizen science app that actually collects data when people see whales.

In the backend, we track the ships to see when they’re slowing down and what companies they’re connected to. And just like we give grades on campus, here we transparently give grades to the different companies based on whether they slow down when whales are present. We publish these notes and engage in discussions with companies about how they can actually improve whale conservation.

I was hoping you could explain why you think it is just as important to work with private entities as it is to work on the public policy side.

Some of this was a learning curve for me as someone who knows a lot about whales and other sea creatures and not so much about how things work with our own species. But part of that learning journey has been understanding the true power and opportunity the private sector has to be a force for change.

When we saw that, we really tried to step in and get in touch with the companies. Overall it was really positive. We create these company-level testimonials and share them with companies. Many companies don’t want to run over whales, they want to know how they can help and they want to know how well they are doing.

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We got some A’s and we got some F’s; It was a bit of a challenge to figure out how to get the companies that don’t seem to care about whale conservation to care like their peers do.

It’s great to hear that some of these companies really want to work together. I’m sure we’ve only skimmed the surface of what the lab has been working 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 sea. Healthy populations of whales create what is known as a whale pump, which means that as they feed at depth and then poop to the surface, they fertilize the surface water, which is then more productive, sucking up and sequestering more carbon.

These ships, which we require to slow down when whales are around, are actually reducing their emissions in the same way cars that travel slightly slower drive more efficiently. One of the outcomes of this particular solution is that you get a win for the whales, but you also get a win for the climate.

Besides ship attacks, what other man-made threats to whales are there?

Entanglement in fishing gear is another leading cause of injury and death in whales. Whales entangled in equipment such as lobster pot ropes or discarded nets can sustain horrific injuries and sometimes starve or drown.

Another major threat is underwater noise pollution from ships, oil and gas exploration, or military activities. These noxious and disorienting sounds can interfere with their ability to feed and communicate with each other.

But the elephant in the room is climate change. Climate change is causing the oceans to warm up, becoming more acidic and less oxygenated. This is affecting the food chains that whales depend on and will certainly affect how well whales are able to hold on.

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The New York Times reported that this year has seen what NOAA considers an unusual rapid string of whale deaths on the East Coast. What factors or combinations of factors do you think are contributing to this worrying trend?

I think this article has done really well [job] Debunking suggestions (sometimes funded by oil and gas) that offshore wind development is linked to this whale killer. The Marine Mammal Commission, a coalition of some of the top whale experts in the United States and the world, has determined that there is no evidence linking this latest death to offshore wind. That’s not to say we don’t need to be extremely careful about where we put offshore wind farms and monitor and control their impact on marine life. That kind of caution is required with every new invasive development that we bring into the ocean. But carefully and intelligently installed offshore wind energy can be part of a solution to combating climate change in some areas. which poses a greater threat to ocean health in the long term.

Ship bumps and entanglements have been found to be associated with many of the dead whales that have been able to be examined by marine mammal experts.

How can we continue to limit the man-made threats to whales?

The good news is that these are solvable problems. Ship collisions with whales can be controlled by working with ocean shipping to slow ships to safer speeds in whale-heavy areas.

And there are new types of technologies that reduce entanglement. For example, there are some very exciting new innovations that allow lobster fishermen to continue working without all of the rope that has proven so lethal to whales.

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