Ships are turning whales into ‘ocean roadkill’. This AI system is trying to stop it

Original publication by Katharine Gammon for theguardian.com on 27 September 2022

Whale Safe, backed by a tech billionaire, is a step forward, but not the only answer to avoiding collisions, biologists say

Collisions with ships are one of the leading causes of death for endangered whales, especially those who spend their lives near the surface, such as humpbacks.
 Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

Fran was a celebrity whale – the most photographed humpback in the San Francisco Bay, with 277 recorded sightings since 2005. Last month, she was hit by a ship and killed.

Her death marked a grim milestone: Fran was the fifth whale to be killed by a ship strike in the area this year, according to the Marine Mammal Center. Collisions with ships are one of the leading causes of death for endangered whales, who breed, eat and travel in deep channels in the same busy waters that cargo ships frequent.

Whales that spend their lives near the surface – such as humpbacks and right whales – are especially at risk. One 2019 study likened their plight to those of land animals forced to criss-cross the highways that cut through their habitats. Whales, they say, are becoming ocean roadkill.

The Whale Safe project, which started in 2020 and is funded by the tech billionaire and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, hopes to overcome that challenge using artificial intelligence. It provides close to real-time data on how many whales are present in the area, and sends out alerts to shipping companies to slow their boats in the presence of the whales.

“This is where tech meets Mother Nature for the benefit of marine life,” said Jeff Boehm, chief external relations officer of the Marine Mammal Center, in a news release last week. “Whales and ships must coexist in an increasingly busy ocean.”

The Whale Safe system works by using buoys fitted with microphones to hear whales, then layers artificial intelligence and models to deliver a “whale presence rating” ranging from low to high. It will also create report cards for shipping companies, based on their voluntary speed reductions in areas of whale activity. Slowing down is the number one thing ships can do to avoid lethal collisions, the group says.

Whales that spend their lives near the surface are at risk of collisions with cargo ships.
Photograph: John Calambokidis/AP

The system has been in use around Santa Barbara, which is home to one of the shipping channels that services the biggest ports on the west coast, and is now expanding northward, into the San Francisco Bay area, also a busy port area for international cargo ships. In the first full year of the system operating near Santa Barbara, there were no recorded whale-ship interactions in the area, the project says.

Marine biologists say the project is a good step, but not a silver bullet in addressing the core issue of whales and ships. John Calambokidis, a senior research biologist and a founder of the Cascadia Research Collective, says he welcomes the Whale Safe program because “it provides additional attention to this important threat to whales”. The system is exciting in that it adds a real-time component to advance detection capabilities, he says.

But he doesn’t think it will represent any kind of solution to the problem until other measures – such as mandatory speed restrictions for ships and moving shipping lanes out of whale routes – are taken.

Calambokidis says that while the system can sense the presence of whales, it can’t give details on how far away they are, which direction they’re traveling, or how many of them are present. Calls from blue whales travel tens of miles, and males make calls more often when they are traveling. Some whales don’t make much noise at all, which would make sensing them difficult. The lack of sound doesn’t necessarily mean that whales aren’t present, he says. “It requires interpretation of the acoustics.”

In addition, the models that the artificial intelligence is trained on, models that Calambokidis has helped to create over decades of research, aren’t very effective at predicting whale occurrence at the scale of shipping lanes.

Between 1988 and 2012, there were at least 100 documented large whale ship strikes along the California coast. But that probably represents only a small proportion of deaths, because most bodies sink to the bottom, and the true number of deaths from ship strikes may be 10 times higher. Blue whales, in particular, have not experienced a population bump after the end of whaling – and ship collisions could be a significant reason stopping their recovery.

A Whale Safe listening bouy is deployed in the waters off San Francisco.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Marine Mammal Center

Cotton Rockwood, a senior marine ecologist at Point Blue Conservation Science, agrees that it’s a good piece of the puzzle for addressing the issue, but it won’t solve the problem alone. “We’ve often heard from captains that yes, they get these notifications that there are higher than average whale densities present, but they don’t necessarily see those whales at the surface, so they don’t necessarily feel like they have to slow down.”

Although more listening stations would make it easier to triangulate the location of whales, that doesn’t account for the quiet moments. “You’re only listening when they call, which isn’t all the time.”

Some projects to avoid whale-ship collisions in the Pacific north-west have tested infrared cameras, which work in some cases, but are very expensive, making them a tricky solution. Another technological fix could be sonic alarms that would shriek out warnings to help keep whales from getting hit. But again it comes with costs, says Rockwood. “Unfortunately, it means you’re putting more sound in the ocean, which is a pollutant for the whales,” he says, adding that whales didn’t respond to it in tests.

Rockwood says that while ship collisions are a visible problem along coastlines – because whale carcasses wash up on beaches – it’s a problem everywhere that ships travel, not just near the shore. “The more people are aware, and the more that the issue gets out there, the more likely it is that things are going to change,” he says. “There are known solutions that do help.”

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