Scientists Listen to Whales to Learn How to Protect Them Industry, government and conservationists use acoustic monitoring to better understand marine life near New York City – Hannah Furfaro, The Wall Street Journal
Scientists now have an ear in the ocean, and state and industry players can’t wait to have a listen.
As data from whale calls filter in from newly installed monitoring technology off the coast of Fire Island, a partnership of industry, government and conservationists is working to better understand and protect marine life in the busy waters near New York City.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the shipping industry-led North American Marine Environment Protection Association are scheduled to host a free panel session on the topicWednesday at the Central Park Zoo.
Aquatic life, marine mammals in particular, off Long Island and closer to New York City have historically faced threats from shipping and fishing vessels. To pinpoint where the whales are, scientists have loaded acoustic equipment on a new oceanic buoy and soon will deploy an acoustic drone designed to glide over the ocean’s surface.
“If we had this technology to tell [ships], ‘There are whales out there now, so slow down now,’ that’s a way to protect the whales but allow the industry to continue and help the economic prospects of the New York area,” said Mark Baumgartner, associate scientist and a marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
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Such partnerships between conservationists and the shipping industry have been challenging in the past, said Carleen Lyden-Kluss, co-founder and executive director for the North American Marine Environment Protection Association. When she heard about the new whale-monitoring efforts, however, she suggested that the groups work together.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said state officials would talk at the panel about New York’s “ocean action plan,” which focuses on conservation and sustainable use of the ocean, among other things.
New York-area waters are a known migration route for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency, there are fewer than 500 in the world.
Commercial whalers hunted the creatures during the 19th century, and the oceanic administration says their recovery has been impeded by their low reproduction rates and the threats that commercial fishing and shipping vessels pose.
“When a whale gets hit by a ship, we’re talking about injury or death,” said Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program, which focuses on conserving whales, sharks, sea turtles and dolphins.
In 2008, the oceanic administration set a seasonal speed zone prohibiting large ships from traveling over 10 knots, about 11.5 miles an hour, near several major ports including New York City.
It isn’t well understood how whales use New York waters-as habitat, for feeding or in their migrations. The new monitoring devices are aimed at revealing some answers.
One of the devices is sitting on the ocean floor 22 miles south of Fire Island, close to two major shipping lanes. It collects information about sounds from four whale species, transmitting data through hoses up to a surface buoy, which then sends them to scientists at Woods Hole.
Meanwhile, an acoustic-monitoring drone powered by solar panels is expected to gather data from the ocean surface beginning this fall.
Data collected by Paul Sieswerda, president and chief executive of the nonprofit conservation group Gotham Whale, suggest humpback whales frequent these waters more often than they did just a few years ago.
‘When a whale gets hit by a ship, we’re talking about injury or death.’
-Howard Rosenbaum, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants director
Mr. Sieswerda has amassed information on humpback whale populations in New York City waters since 2011. For three days each week, naturalists from his group go out on the American Princess, a commercial whalewatching boat, in hopes of spotting one.
His team saw five humpback whales the year they started. In 2014, they spotted 108.
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“We see them feeding in the Ambrose Channel with these large container ships passing right by,” said Mr. Sieswerda, referring to the main shipping channel in and out of the Port of New York and New Jersey. “I make the case that the whales and the shipping are coming closer and closer together.”
The acoustic buoy will bolster these observations with more data. It can hear calls from “soft-spoken” species like humpback whales and endangered North Atlantic right whales up to 5 miles away, said Woods Hole’s Dr. Baumgartner. Fin and sei whales, which make louder calls, can be heard about 10 miles away.
Dr. Baumgartner hopes fishing and shipping vessels will use the data to plan their routes or slow down when a whale is detected nearby. “Slowing down ships is a proven way to reduce the risk” of a ship strike, he said.