Tool to Avert Blue Whale Collisions Could Aid Other Sea Mammals


Scientists have long used satellite tags to track endangered blue whales along the West Coast, learning how the largest animals on the planet find enough small krill to feed on to support their enormous size.

Now researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, Oregon State University and the University of Maryland have combined that trove of tracking data with satellite observations of ocean conditions to develop the first system for predicting locations of blue whales off the U.S. west coast. The system, called WhaleWatch, produces monthly maps of blue whale “hotspots” to alert ships to sites of increased risk of encountering the whales.

NOAA Fisheries has begun publicly posting the maps on its West Coast Region website each month. A new scientific paper published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology describes the development of the WhaleWatch system and the methodology behind it.

“We’re using the many years of tag data to let the whales tell us where they go, and under what conditions,” said Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist at NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author of the new paper. “If we know what drives their hotspots we can more clearly assess different management options to reduce risk to the whales.”

Helen Bailey, WhaleWatch project leader at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and coauthor of the paper, describes WhaleWatch as an innovative combination of satellite technology and computer modeling that will help protect whales by providing timely information to the shipping industry. NASA helped fund the project, which draws on ocean observations from NASA and NOAA satellites.

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