February 28, 2007

Pop-Up Machines May Protect Whale Species

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The North Atlantic Right Whale, because it floats when it dies, earned its name as the “right” whale to kill in the 15th century. This fact almost drove them to extinction, and according to Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program in the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell, they have never completely recovered.

For the last 500 years the small Right Whale population has been just barely hanging on, and now, because of increased collisions with shipping boats, they may be dangerously close to extinction again. Due to research done by Clark, who has developed a more effective way to monitor and track the whales, it might be possible to reduce the chances of collision and perhaps help save this species.

Until now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, responsible for monitoring whale locations, has done all of its work using small planes to visually search for the whales. However, aerial surveying is often ineffective, according to Dr. Sophie Vanpari, a marine mammal bio-acoustician at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. It cannot be used in bad weather or at night and cannot monitor constantly, making the chances of missing a whale very high. Aerial surveying also can be expensive.

Clark has developed a new way to monitor whales. His machines, nicknamed “pop-ups,” monitor underwater activity acoustically. When the “pop-ups” are recovered, they can be taken back to the lab and the information can be analyzed to monitor and learn about Right Whale behaviors. “Pop-ups” are small, inexpensive, relatively easy to manufacture and can constantly record for up to three months.

“We’ve compared the aerial survey with the listening results, and there’s no question which is better,” Clark said.

Clark has been working on this technology for almost 10 years, but it wasn’t until recently that federal agencies like NOAA started to take notice. According to Ingrid Biedron, a Cornell graduate student specializing in Right Whales, NOAA is interested in setting up a monitoring system off the coast of Massachusetts, where there are plans to build a new liquefied natural gas plant. The plant’s construction could potentially cause underwater disruption and will increase shipping traffic in a heavily-populated Right Whale area. The monitoring system, using Clark’s machinery, would make sure that the whales are not adversely affected.

“Right Whales use sound to communicate, probably to find food, to find mates and to keep track of their young. We want to make sure that the construction doesn’t disrupt this communication,” Biedron said. “Also the noise could cause physical damage to the whales if it’s too close to their ears.”

According to Biedron, the “pop-ups” would monitor these problems during construction and make sure the noise is not negatively affecting the whales. Then, when the ship traffic increased, scientists and captains could use hydrophones dangling in the water to monitor and track the whales.

“The notion is that when we provide the data it comes up on the ships bridge as little blinking lights — green means that there are no whales there, and red means there are whales,” Clark said.

If a whale was detected near a ship, than the ship could slow down.

However, the biggest question is, will ships listen? According to Clark, over the last month or two, big shipping companies have been fighting against NOAA and Massachusetts congressmen. They do not want to abide by regulations that would require them to slow down or stop for whales. But even with these problems, scientists like Vanpari still maintain that even the idea of a project like this one is a huge step.

“It’s a pretty groundbreaking thing to actually have these companies in a situation where they might have to do monitoring and mitigation, where previously they’ve been able to do what they want,” she said.

Hopefully this project will get underway before it’s too late — today only about 350 North Atlantic Right Whales exist, and every death is another huge step towards extinction.

“Basically if we could prevent the death of two females per year that could cause their population decline to level out,” Biedron said. “So every ship strike could be the one that causes extinction, and every one that is prevented could be the one that causes the population to level out or even start increasing.”