‘WhaleWatch’ Data Helps Protect Endangered Whales Using NASA Satellites
By NASA.gov // May 11, 2015
NASA – Bruce Mate has been tagging blue whales since 1979. After 35 years, he has yet to lose his sense of wonder.
“The term ‘awesome’ is almost trite nowadays, people use it a lot. But for blue whales it’s an appropriate term,” said Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.
“They’re the biggest animal that’s ever lived on Earth, over 100 feet long, over 100 tons in weight, and their color is a sort of iridescent blue. When you see them rising to the surface you start seeing this glimmer that keeps getting bigger and bigger. They’re just amazing,” he said.
A new online tool funded by NASA that helps protect this endangered species is set to be released this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The WhaleWatch tool will help decrease whale mortality due to collisions with shipping and fishing gear.
About a fourth of the roughly 12,000 blue whales in the world today live in the Pacific Ocean, said Mate.
Most of them, along with other endangered whale species, migrate up and down the California coast – along with heavy fishing and shipping traffic to and from the major ports of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Massive vessels navigating through their dining areas near the ports increase the chances that a whale will be injured or killed by a collision, while becoming entangled in fishing gear can hamper a whale’s ability to feed or swim to the surface to breathe.
Mate is part of a team of scientists who have created the new WhaleWatch tool that will be used to address conflicts between humans and whales based on his tag data of four whale species and satellite observations from NASA and other agencies.
WhaleWatch will show for each month the most likely locations of blue, humpback, fin, and gray whales along the West Coast of the United States and Canada based on current environmental conditions detected by satellites.
In addition, WhaleWatch has a daily product that will predict the movements of blue whales for any given day.
The project was funded by NASA’s Applied Sciences Program and is scheduled to be released on the NOAA West Coast Regional website in late 2015.
“The real way to reduce the risk of a whale getting hit is to reduce the overlap [of whales and vessels],” said Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal scientist at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) West Coast Region in Long Beach, California, who was part of the project.
NMFS is responsible for protecting endangered species like blue whales while they swim in U.S. waters, a zone that extends 200 miles from shore.
“When we sit down at the table to talk to people,” including the fishing industry, shipping industry, U.S. Coast Guard, and anyone else interested in activities on the water, DeAngelis said, “the first question is where are the whales?”
In the past, NOAA has relied on boat surveys conducted from July to November during a portion of the whales’ migration along the coast, but these surveys are conducted every five or so years and are just a snapshot, said WhaleWatch project leader Helen Bailey at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Solomons, Maryland.
Researchers don’t have the up-to-date daily, monthly, or even seasonal data on whale movements that would really inform decision-making.
That’s where WhaleWatch comes in.
To develop the tool, Bailey and colleagues started with 15 years of whale tag data and matched it in place and time with ocean depth measurements and satellite measurements of sea surface temperate, chlorophyll concentration and sea surface height.
Bailey worked with Mate and researchers at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, in Monterey, California, and Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to analyze the two types of data – and found patterns between environmental cues and whale movements.
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