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EarthFix Conversation: Protecting Endangered Whales? There’s An App For That

April 27, 2012 | KUOW
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Ashley Ahearn


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  • North Atlantic Right Whales are some of the most endangered whales on earth. Now, an app might help alert mariners and other boaters in order to prevent collisions with these giant marine mammals. credit: NOAA
  • The WhaleALERT app takes input from acoustic buoys that monitor from whales, as well as highlighting protected areas and locations of recent whale sightings to help mariners steer clear of the endangered right whales. credit: NOAA
North Atlantic Right Whales are some of the most endangered whales on earth. Now, an app might help alert mariners and other boaters in order to prevent collisions with these giant marine mammals. | credit: NOAA | rollover image for more

Every year whales are killed by vessel interactions. But what if there was an app to help prevent that from happening? Dr. David Wiley’s our man for that. He led a team that developed a new App called WhaleALERT. He’s the research coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts.

EarthFix: Tell me how WhaleALERT works.

David Wiley: Well WhaleALERT works on an iPhone or an iPad and basically what it does is it produces all of the information that a mariner needs to have about right whale conservation in one spot. So there’s a lot of different things that NOAA has designed to protect right whales from being hit by ships and seriously injured or killed and the problem is that a lot of that stuff is in all sorts of different places and so the WhaleALERT app takes all the information a mariner needs to know and puts it in one spot on digital charts that they’re used to looking at and so it really simplifies for mariners how to comply and keep right whales safe.

EarthFix: Tell me a little bit more about what’s going into this app. What information are you collecting?

David Wiley: Well information is being collected by a bunch of different sources. One is the National Marine Fisheries Service is flying aerial surveys searching for right whales frequently and any time there’s good weather really. So if they spot right whales they create what’s called a dynamic management area around those aggregations and we can display that on the app so mariners are able to see those in their locations.

We also have real-time acoustic buoys through the shipping lanes that go through the sanctuary and these are buoys that have hydrophones hanging down from them and they can actually detect right whale calls and when a call is detected that is displayed on a screen so mariners can see that there’s right whales that have been detected in the shipping lanes in front of them and they can slow down and increase their visual awareness.

EarthFix: What problems were you trying to solve in creating this app?

David Wiley: The app is designed to solve two problems. One is that right whales are getting struck by ships and to the level that’s detrimental to population and secondly that shipping — the mariners are being fined for failure to comply with some of the regulations in terms of speed — so if they’re going over 10 knots in some of these seasonal management areas repeatedly, NOAA has fined them up to $92,000. So we’re trying to solve problems. One is to keep mariners from being unnecessarily fined and two by increasing their compliance allow the protective measures that are designed to promote right whale conservation to actually have impact.

EarthFix: And are you hearing anything back from mariners yet that are using the technology and say that it’s helping them, or not?

David Wiley: Well our test fleet, we’ve got a number of vessels of different types. We’ve got a car carrier, we’ve got the Coast Guard, we’ve got Boston harbor pilots and most of them are giving us feedback that the information is very easy for them to access and puts it all in one place for them. That’s the main thing. All the different things that they have to comply with and be made aware of for right whale conservation are right there. We call it one-stop shopping.

EarthFix: Dr. Wiley, do you see any applications for this technology elsewhere or on other species or types of whales?

David Wiley: Well I think the WhaleALERT concept can be used anywhere in the world where you have conservation information that needs to be targeted to a particular user community. So for instance in the Pacific Northwest if you had specific information that you thought would keep killer whales safer from the boater community or from anybody else putting something like this in their hands where they can quickly see what is being asked of them and have them comply with it quite easily I think that’s a benefit to everyone – both the animals and the people.

Dr. David Wiley is the research coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts.

© 2012 KUOW
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