Crossing Guards

By Justin Matlick

Researchers from Cornell University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have developed a high-tech method for preventing deadly collisions between whales and ships: buoys that listen for endangered right whales and alert vessels when the animals are nearby. The new “auto-detection” buoys address one of the leading causes of right whale death.

Approximately one-third of Northeastern right whale mortalities are caused by collisions with ships. Each year, the whales gather in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary east of Boston. The sanctuary is bisected by shipping lanes, bringing the whales close to tankers, cruise liners, and other vessels.

To prevent these collisions, the Cornell and Woods Hole teams have placed the buoys near the lanes and programmed them to detect the right whale’s distinctive call. When they do, analysts confirm the sound is a whale and notify the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Right Whale Sighting Advisory System. NOAA then alerts ships that whales are in the vicinity.

Right now, only tankers headed to and from a nearby liquefied natural gas terminal are required by NOAA to slow down when alerts are sent out. But Christopher Clark, director of Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program, hopes others will voluntarily follow the slower speeds. With fewer than 400 right whales remaining, the death of even one breeding female could set back efforts to help the population recover.

A daily map of whale detections can be viewed at www.listenforwhales.org. Map prepared by Christopher Tremblay, Cornell University Lab of Ornithology / Bioacoustics Research Program.

Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

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