A Cape Cod science center and one of the world’s largest shipping companies team up on a project to use robotic buoys to protect a disappearing whale from deadly collisions with ships.
A Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution lab developed the technology, using buoys and underwater gliders to record whale sounds in real-time. The automatic recorders are giving scientists, mariners, and the public an idea of the location of rare North Atlantic right whales, said Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole, whose lab also operates the buoys.
There are fewer than 340 whales worldwide, and ship attacks are one of the biggest threats to their existence as they travel through some of the busiest stretches of ocean on Earth. Now French shipping giant CMA CGM is working with Woods Hole to deploy two robotic buoys off Norfolk, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia.
CMA CGM is funding the deployment of the buoys, which will add to the data collected by six others off the east coast, Baumgartner said. The two new buoys could be deployed for testing soon, he said.
“We need to change our industrial practices when whales are around. That’s what makes this technology possible,” Baumgartner said. “If the industry tells us what works and what doesn’t, it’s the best way to have solutions that are actually implemented.”
The whales were once abundant off the east coast, but their populations were decimated by commercial whaling generations ago. Today they are vulnerable to ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. And the population has declined in recent years due to high mortality and poor reproduction.
The whales are aided by a complex network of protected areas and shipping restrictions. However, scientists have recently raised the alarm that the whales have wandered outside protected areas in search of food as the water warms. That made them more vulnerable.
Representatives of CMA CGM, which has a US headquarters in Norfolk, said the company chose to locate buoys for the city of Virginia and Savannah because it is one of the busiest shipping ports in the United States. Ed Aldridge, president of CMA CGM America, said it is an effort to “responsibly share the ocean with marine mammals and protect endangered species.”
The company will pay for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the buoys for three years, said Heather Wood, CMA CGM America’s director of sustainability. The company declined to disclose the cost of the project. Wood said it hopes to build a consortium of shippers using this kind of technology to protect whales.
“It’s an investment we’re making in the future of the seas and the future of the right whale,” she said.
Baumgartner said that acoustic recorders have been tracking whale sounds for decades, but a relatively recent invention is the buoys that deliver sound in near real-time. He said that the robotic buoys make data available every few hours rather than months later.
The results come out on a public website and are also being used by federal authorities to help decide when to announce “right whale slow zones,” which call on ship operators to slow down to 10 knots (11.5 mph) or less.
The data “allows us to quickly send information to mariners so that those who can take action (by slowing down or avoiding the areas) to reduce the risk of collision with ships, which is one of the biggest threats for this endangered population,” scientists Diane Borggaard and Genevieve Davis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a joint statement.
Conservation groups and academics also use the data collected by the robotic buoys. They’re also used on the West Coast to protect blue and humpback whales, said Callie Steffen, a project scientist at Whale Safe in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“We hope shipping companies will integrate this,” Steffen said. “It’s a Smokey Bear fire warning, but for the presence of whales.”