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Texas A&M-Galveston Faculty Member Part of Group Launching Whale Monitoring Tool Designed to Prevent Vessel Collisions    

September 23, 2020


A blue whale exhaling off the California Coast.

By Andréa Bolt, Communications Specialist, Division of Marketing & Communications

A groundbreaking new online tool called Whale Safe has been created by marine scientists and top whale researchers from across the country, including Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Dr. Ana Širović. The tool allows users to detect the endangered animals in order to mitigate vessel strikes and increase conservation efforts of the endangered marine species.
 
Displaying near real-time data to help prevent ships and whales from colliding, Whale Safe is a crucially important analysis and mapping tool designed to lessen the chance of a strike or collision. The interactive web tool is the result of three years of work between scientists and researchers from Texas A&M-Galveston, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center and more. The project was funded by the Benioff Ocean Initiative, with support to Širović provided by the Flora Family Foundation
A ship sailing through the Santa Barbara Channel where whale and vessel strikes have been frequent.
A vessel passing through the Santa Barbara Channel. Whale Safe has been designed to mitigate costly, tragic vessel/whale collisions. 

 
The high number of whale and vessel collisions is the result of multiple factors. Firstly, blue, fin and humpback whales are common along the West Coast’s cold, nutrient-rich waters. Next, the whales’ migration paths unfortunately overlap with some of the busiest shipping routes in the world. According to researchers related to the project, 80 endangered blue, humpback and fin whales were sadly killed as a result of vessel collisions in the last two years just off the West Coast.
 
Whale Safe has been designed to help vessels passing in the Santa Barbara Channel “see” the whales.  An underwater acoustic system that automatically detects whale calls, near real-time forecasts of whale feeding grounds based on dynamic oceanographic data and a mobile app used by community scientists to record whale sightings have been combined to create the overall tool.  Širović is leading the analysis of acoustic buoy data.
 
“This project is the first time active monitoring of cetaceans and speed reduction approaches are being used in the Pacific Ocean to try to reduce the interactions between endangered baleen whales and ships,” said Širović. “Locally, given the busy traffic coming in and out of Port of Houston, and the currently poorly-understood occurrence of the endangered Gulf of Mexico Bryde's whale in the western Gulf of Mexico waters, it is an approach that could also be applicable for our region one day.”
 
The acoustic system, developed by collaborators at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, consists of an underwater microphone called a hydrophone deployed in the Channel that detects sounds and processes them using an artificial intelligence-powered computer providing identification of blue, humpback and fin whales in near real-time. The whale detections are then sent via satellite transmitter on the system’s surface buoy to computers in Woods Hole that Širović and her team in Galveston access for review and confirmation.
 
“I have spent decades recording blues and other baleen whales at different locations. In the past, we always had to go back and retrieve our instruments and data from the ocean floor to learn when the whales were present at our location, months or years earlier. It is really exciting to know that there are whales in the Santa Barbara Channel now, within an hour or two of them making the vocalization,” she said.  
 
Whale Safe uses data from a GPS-like automatic identification system that can be picked up by vessels as well as by transceivers on land or in satellites, and used to identify vessels and gauge their speeds. This information is utilized by the Whale Safe tool and translated into “report cards” for the vessels and their companies, rating their cooperation with voluntary speed limits in important whale habitat areas.
 
“This project bridges the gap between a pure scientific endeavor and an applied, conservation-focused approach. I hope it will inspire and stimulate our students into thinking about creative ways to protect and conserve our resources and the environment,” Širović concluded.

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Media contact:
Andréa Bolt
Communications Specialist
a_bolt@tamug.edu



Texas A&M University at Galveston is an ocean-oriented branch campus of Texas A&M University which educates nearly 2,300 undergraduate and graduate students in a unique blend of marine and maritime programs, including majors in science, business, engineering, liberal arts, and transportation. It is driving the development of the blue economy in the Gulf Coast Region and is a critical contributor to Texas A&M’s sea-grant portion of Texas A&M’s rare land-, sea-, space-grant mission with nearly $10 million in research expenditures.
 
Texas A&M-Galveston is also home to the Texas A&M Maritime Academy, one of seven in the U.S. and the only academy integrated into a Tier 1 academic institution, which trains over 400 cadets annually for maritime service and employment around the world. Texas A&M-Galveston is ideally located in Galveston, Texas on the Gulf Coast where is it surrounded by the industry, environment and programs essential to fulfilling its special-purpose mission. Aggies are known for their deep commitment to the success of each other and their strong desire to serve.

If you are interested in supporting this endeavor or research, please contact the Texas A&M University at Galveston Office of Development by email at GiveToSeaAggies@txamfoundation.com or by calling (409) 740-4481.