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As the website Right Whale Festival notes, “The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a federally protected ​endangered species.” Fewer than 350 exist today. Recovery is hampered by a slow reproduction rate and threats from entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with vessels.

Last week, I was talking to my younger grandson about elephants, and the conversation morphed into the topic of endangered species. He told me that the most endangered marine animal is the vaquita. I mentioned the right whale.

Today’s story is about an ocean scientist who is using drones and satellites to protect whales. Tatiana Schlossberg wrote about him for the Washington Post.

“Just yards from the Fish 1, a 22-foot research vessel, a humpback whale about twice the size of the boat hurled itself out of the water, sending shimmering droplets in a broken necklace of splash. In the other direction, a hulking cargo ship, stacked high with containers, crept closer.

“Aboard the Fish 1 … ocean scientist Douglas McCauley wanted to see whether the near real-time detection system he and his colleagues had developed, Whale Safe, could avert collisions between whales and ships in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“The tool represents one of the ways McCauley, who heads the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California Santa Barbara, is working to protect the ocean even as it becomes more industrialized. By collecting data from several sources — an acoustic monitoring buoy that listens for whale songs, identifies them according to species with an algorithm and sends that information to satellites; a predictive habitat model for blue whales; and sightings logged in an app — Whale Safe forecasts to ships the chances of meeting a whale. Then, it grades shipping companies on whether they actually slow down to 10 knots or less during whale migrations, from May 1 to Dec. 15.

‘We can literally watch all of the ships in California and across the whole ocean; we are better positioned than ever before to try to track damage as it occurs, or before it occurs,’ McCauley said. …

“Humans have worked in the seas for centuries: fishing, seafaring and more recently, drilling for oil and gas and the development of offshore wind farms. Shipping lanes cross almost every surface of the sea, except for shrinking swaths of the Southern and Arctic Ocean. …

“In meetings with corporate executives and political leaders, McCauley has made a consistent argument: Protecting the sea is in our interest, since it already does a lot of the work for us.

“In 2020 McCauley led a report that provided a framework for marine protected areas on the high seas, finding that such refuges could be powerful tools for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and climate resilience. Even port and fishing communities, he argued, depend on an ocean that is still wild and alive. …

“The encounter in late September, amid one of the world’s busiest shipping channels and a vibrant ecosystem, offered a glimpse of how to do just that. Minutes after the container ship had passed McCauley’s boat, the whale — possibly the same one, but it is hard to tell — had found another [whale], and the two sent up exhales of spray.

“It was as if a bulldozer operator had plowed through a herd of elephants without stopping, not too far from a major city’s downtown, hoping to avoid a crash. And it happens many times a day here in the Santa Barbara Channel, even though barely anyone sees it. …

“The ocean is, by far, the world’s largest carbon sink, having absorbed about 40 percent of the excess greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels. But it comes at a cost: more acidic and warmer waters, which may not soak up as much carbon going forward. The fact that ocean animals evolved to a narrow range of conditions, McCauley and others found, makes them more vulnerable to climate change. …

“He learned through experience: What is good for the ocean is also good for people, and possibly business too. Slowing down ships means fewer ship strikes, which means more whales. That is good for biodiversity and climate change: Whales themselves are carbon sinks and fertilize plant growth (another carbon sink). …

“Three shipping companies contacted for this article, as well as an industry association, said that they supported such programs. CMA CGM, among the world’s largest shipping container companies, is sending alerts above medium directly to their captains, and Hyundai Heavy Industries is working with Whale Safe to incorporate its data directly onboard new ships.

“But some of the firms tracked by the tool, which has recently expanded its use to include San Francisco, have received F grades. Matson Navigation, for example, only slowed down roughly 18 percent of the time.

“Lee Kindberg, the head of environment and sustainability for Maersk, which received a B for slowing down in about 79 percent of cases, said the company supports Whale Safe. But she added that shippers must balance safety and speed restrictions against weather and demands from companies — and their customers — who want everything faster.”

More at the Post, here.

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