New online maps predict location of blue whale hotspots

Tool aimed at helping ships avoid collisions with blue whales

Researchers from NOAA Fisheries, Oregon State University and the University of Maryland have teamed up to make the waters off America's West Coast safer for blue whales, by posting online maps every month showing blue whale hotspots to alert ships to areas where there may be an increased risk of encountering the whales.

The maps were developed by combining the tracking data of tagged whales with satellite observations of ocean conditions.

A paper in a recent edition of Journal of Applied Ecology describes the development of the programme – called WhaleWatch - and the methodology behind it. L

ead author Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist at NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center said, "We're using the many years of tag data to let the whales tell us where they go, and under what conditions. If we know what drives their hotspots, we can more clearly assess different management options to reduce risk to the whales,"

Describing WhaleWatch as an innovative combination of satellite technology and computer modelling, co-author Helen Bailey, the WhaleWatch project leader at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that "this is the first time that we've been able to predict whale densities on a year-round basis in near-real time. We hope it's going to protect the whales by helping inform the shipping industry." In addition, she hopes that the programme can be extended to other whale species.

Oregon State University's Bruce Mate and his team were the ones responsible for the tracking data of more than 100 blue whales from 1994 to 2008, which now forms the backbone of WhaleWatch. He said, "These aren't guesstimates of how whales may respond to certain conditions, but actual data on how they did respond, which improves the accuracy of the predictions."

Earlier research has found that shipping lanes to and from Los Angeles and San Francisco overlap with major blue whale foraging hotspots, putting the whales at risk of fatal ship strikes. In fact, studies have shown that ships off the West Coast strike an average of two blue whales every year, although some ship strikes probably go unnoticed.

"No ship captain or shipping company wants to strike a whale," said Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks ship traffic into and out of Southern California ports. "If we can provide good scientific information about the areas that should be avoided, areas the whales are using, I think the industry is going to take that very seriously and put it to use."