California Whales Are Being Killed by Ships, but AI Might Be Able to Save Them

An artificial intelligence system is about to start listening out for whale calls along busy shipping lanes to help prevent collisions with vessels. The system, Whale Safe, will provide real-time forecasts of blue whale locations in an interactive online tool. Shipping companies will then be informed if the presence of whales is low, moderate, high or very high on any given day.

Ships pose a huge threat to whales across the ocean. This is especially true in locations where both have a large presence, such as the areas around ports. Over the summer, 30 blue whales were seen feeding on the Los Angeles-Long Beach shipping lanes, one of the world's busiest.

On the West Coast, it is estimated that ships kill 80 endangered whales every year, including 18 blue whales. In 2019, there were 13 confirmed vessel strikes off the coast of California. Eleven of these whales were confirmed dead. Researchers believe the actual number of whales hit and killed by ships is far higher than the figures recorded as in many cases, the carcasses are not found. One study from 2017 estimated the number of strikes detected is between 5 and 17 percent.

Map showing the shipping lanes and blue whale sightings off the coast around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Benioff Ocean Initiative

The problem is also expected to get worse as shipping traffic increases. "It has increased 1,600 percent since the 1980s, when the international moratorium on whaling was adopted," Morgan Visalli, from the Benioff Ocean Initiative, UC Santa Barbara, told Newsweek in an email. "Shipping is conservatively expected to triple by 2050. As marine shipping increases, so does the risk of collisions."

Visalli is one of the scientists that launched Whale Safe at an event Thursday. With increased shipping and declining whale populations, the need for tools to protect the animals is paramount. The NOAA calculates that in order for blue whale populations to remain at a sustainable level or recover, just 1.2 animals can be killed by human-induced causes. "So 18 blue whale deaths is way over this limit, and could therefore be having a negative impact on the recovery of this endangered species," she said.

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A dead whale hooked on the bow of a ship that docked in France in 2012. Whale Safe aims to help shipping companies avoid or take precautions around areas where whales are likely to be. BORIS HORVAT/AFP via Getty Images

Whale Safe incorporates three different whale detection technologies. This includes an acoustic monitoring system that detects their calls, models providing real-time forecasts of whale feeding grounds and whale sightings recorded by community scientists. The AI system that records the whale calls does so using a hydrophone in the water. An onboard computer processes audio and identifies calls of blue, humpback and fin whales. These calls are sent back to shore via satellite.

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Diagram showing the acoustic monitoring system used by Whale Safe. John Kemp and Jim Ryder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution f

Combining these three, researchers were able to develop a system that could inform shipping companies when they are at risk of colliding with whales. They are provided with a "whale presence rating" that they can use to make decisions on their actions. "In the Santa Barbara Channel, which is the first place that Whale Safe has been deployed—a hotspot for both endangered whales and shipping activity—NOAA and the Coast Guard request that ships voluntarily slow to 10 knots," Visalli said.

"No one wants to hit and kill a whale—and companies especially don't want to come into port with a whale wrapped over their ship's bow. Whale Safe was developed, in part, in response to requests from industry for more real-time data on whale activity that could help improve their situational awareness and inform more data-driven decision making to reduce the risk of whale-ship collisions."