Robotic buoy developed to keep Atlantic right whales safe

The Cape Cod Science Center and one of the world’s largest shipping companies are collaborating on a project to use robotic buoys to protect disappearing whales from fatal collisions with ships.

A laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution developed the technology, which uses buoys and underwater gliders to record whale sounds in near real time. The robotic recorders let scientists, sailors and the public know the location of the rare North Atlantic right whale, said Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole, whose lab also operates buoys.

There are fewer than 340 whales in the world, and ship strikes are one of the biggest threats to their survival as they traverse some of the busiest oceans on Earth. Now, French shipping giant CMA CGM is working with Woods Hole to deploy two robotic buoys near Norfolk, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia.

Baumgartner said CMA CGM is funding the deployment of the buoys, which will add to the data collected by six others on the East Coast. The two new buoys may soon be deployed for testing, he said.

“When whales show up, we have to change our industrial practices. That’s what this technology enables,” Baumgartner said. “Letting the industry tell us what works and what doesn’t is the best way to get practical implementation solutions.”

Whales on the East Coast were once abundant, but their numbers were decimated by commercial whaling generations ago. Today, they are vulnerable to ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. Their population has dwindled in recent years due to high mortality and poor reproductive performance.

Whales are aided by a complex network of protected areas and transport restrictions. Scientists have recently sounded the alarm, however, that whales have been searching for food outside the reserve as the ocean warms. This makes them even more vulnerable.

A representative for CMA CGM, which has U.S. headquarters in Norfolk, said the company chose to place the buoys near Virginia City and Savannah because those are among the busiest shipping ports in the United States. Ed Aldridge, president of CMA CGM America, said it was an effort to “responsibly share the ocean with marine mammals and protect endangered species.”

Heather Wood, director of sustainability at CMA CGM America, said the company will pay for three years to build, maintain and operate the buoys. The company declined to disclose the cost of the project. Wood said it wants to create a coalition of shippers that use the technology to protect whales.

“This is an investment we are making in the future of the ocean and the future of right whales,” she said.

Acoustic recorders have been tracking whale sounds for decades, but buoys that provide near real-time sound are a relatively recent invention, Baumgartner said. Robotic buoys provide data every few hours, not months later, he said.

The results, posted on a public website, are also used by federal authorities to help decide when to declare a “right whale speed reduction zone,” which requires ship operators to slow down to 10 knots (11.5 mph) or less.

The data “allows us to quickly send information to seafarers so that those can take action (by slowing down or avoiding these areas) to reduce the risk of ship strikes, one of the greatest threats to this endangered population,” the scientists said. Diane Boggard and Genevieve Davis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a joint statement.

Conservation groups and academics also use data collected by robotic buoys. They’re also being used on the West Coast to help protect blue, fin and humpback whales, said Callie Steffen, a whale safety program scientist in Santa Barbara, California.

“We want shipping companies to consolidate this,” Steffen said. “It’s a smoky bear fire warning, but for the presence of whales.”

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