Task Force Aims to Save Whales and Combat NOAA
Industry leaders–from boatbuilders to tech companies–band together to offer a technology-based solution to counter NOAA’s 10-knot speed restriction plan.
Last year, National Marine Fisheries Service launched a shot across the bow of the marine industry. To halt a drop in the population of North Atlantic Right Whales, the agency, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, proposed both a substantial expansion of 10-knot speed restriction zones along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and a decrease in the size of boats affected. Instead of 65 feet and up, the proposal would cover boats down to 35 feet. Go-slow zones would also be expanded to up to seven months of the year for much of the U.S. Atlantic Coast out to 90 miles offshore.
A revision to speed rules set up in 2008 has been in the works for some time. In 2013, NOAA began a review and published their findings in 2020. The study didn’t make specific recommendations on speed restrictions but noted, “The number of documented and reported small vessel collisions with whales necessitates further action both as it relates to potential regulations and outreach to this sector of the mariner community.”
Still, when the actual speed proposal was published, it came as a shock to much of the marine industry. Normally, said Viking’s Director of Government Affairs and Sustainability, John DePersenaire, anglers and boatbuilders work through regulatory changes under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which sets up a lengthy and stakeholder-inclusive process when a change is proposed. Though this right whale proposal took over a year to craft, stakeholders didn’t know actual details until it was published.
In March, the marine industry announced the Whale and Vessel Safety Task Force. Rather than simply lobby for a repeal of speed limits, WAVS hopes to harness and aggregate technology so that a reliable whale detection network can ultimately be pushed out in real time to your phone or chart plotter.
Make no mistake, DePersenaire and biologists including Emily Charry Tessier from WAVS partner Whaleseeker and New England Aquarium Chief Scientist Jessica Redfern say the survival of North Atlantic Right Whales as a species is in jeopardy.
Recent studies have shown that perhaps as many as 90 percent of all Northern Atlantic Right Whales have sustained entanglement injuries—some severe, nearly all traumatizing. Between 2008 and 2022 there were 12 documented right whale deaths from ship strikes. Vessels under 65 feet accounted for five of them. In 2009, a 30-foot Pursuit collided with a whale resulted in over $100,000 in damages. In 2021, a 54-foot Jarrett Bay returning to St. Augustine collided with a mother and her calf. The calf died, the mother’s fate was unknown and the $1.2 million boat was a loss. Today only around 340 right whales remain. A mere 72 are females of reproduction age reproducing at far lower numbers (15 last year vs 24 in the early 2000’s) than biologists say it will take to re-establish the species.
At the same time, DePersenaire says, the proposed speed rule won’t solve the problem, particularly when sub-65-foot boats are responsible for a relatively small number of fatalities. The effect on an entire industry could be devastating too—a vast cross section of people whose lives and livelihoods span the development of multi-function displays, inboard and outboard motors, hull-layups, harbor safety, tourism and of course, fishing and cruising. More research, DePersenaire says too, is needed to determine for example, whether a 50-plus-foot Viking that draws five feet at 10 knots is in fact, more dangerous to a near surface whale than the same boat traveling on plane at 16 knots that runs much shallower. “When we looked at the proposed rule, as well, we knew it was a blunt tool,” he says. “They didn’t put much thought into how they could nuance those regulations to accommodate the risk for a 35-foot center console, as opposed to 1,000-foot container ship.”
What’s needed, he says, is an all-hands on deck approach that includes all players—including NOAA—and brings to bear a vast array of technology so captains can have real-time whale intel.
Biologist Emily Charry Tissier founded Whaleseeker in an effort to speed up whale tracking with aerial photography. By pairing an AI engine called Mobius with human biologists, an aerial population survey that once took three years, can now take hours. She hopes to integrate everything from drone survey photography into a real-time network that could be pushed onto your chart plotter.
When he worked in emergency management and port compliance for the Coast Guard, Greg Reilly dealt firsthand with right whale issues. Today, he’s a campaigner for the WAVS partner The International Fund for Animal Welfare. IFAW helped develop the Whale Alert app whose data may soon incorporate Whaleseeker data. “It’s totally free,” says Reilly. “It first and foremost pulls data from every source we know of … you’ve got Clearwater Marine Aquarium and New England Aquarium doing aerial surveys. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has robots for whales. They have put acoustic buoys out. They use gliders … The Amelia Island Whale Ambassadors are part of Florida’s network—they do observations from the beach. All this stuff gets reported, often into different databases. So, our app developer works to aggregate all that and then push it out to the public.”
In the near future too, infrared cameras, shipboard drones, forward-facing sonar and even radar, calibrated to detect the spray from whale spouts, might be brought to bear. Whale-mounted AIS trackers—a seemingly obvious solution—are unlikely. Tracker mounting is difficult and more importantly, skin and fin-mounted trackers have been shown to cause injuries—and even death—from infection.
The trick, says Charry Tissier, is combining all this technology. “That’s why we have this taskforce,” she says. “Everyone’s coming from different experience. We really need this group of very versatile ocean stakeholders to say, ‘Hey, you don’t know what you don’t know. This is what I see. This is the blind spot.’ Because ultimately, everyone is looking in the same direction on the horizon, saying, ‘This is what we need to do. How, how can we do it? How can we do it together and in a smart way?’”
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