MMS dives into better whale tracking

The Minerals Management Service last month awarded a software contract that will help the agency better analyze the migration habits of the endangered bowhead whale, whose seasonal wanderings bring it close to offshore oil rigs.

MMS, an Interior Department agency in charge of managing the nation's oil and gas reserves under the ocean floor in an environmentally safe manner, awarded the contract to Science Applications International Corp.'s Maritime Services Division in San Diego. SAIC will try to develop new software that could simplify and improve the data collection, mapping and analysis of the bowhead whale migration.

Since the mid-1980s, MMS' Bowhead Whale Aerial Survey Project (BWASP) has monitored the bowhead migration, which extends from the Beaufort Sea off the northwest coast of Canada, through the Bering Strait and southward into the Bering Sea. The bowhead, which is the largest mammal in the Arctic Ocean, migrates to the warmer waters of the Bering Sea each fall, winding its way past numerous oil and gas rigs that, some believe, could disturb the whale's migration.

Observing the bowhead's migration "is [done] to ensure that they migrate normally each fall in light of any oil and gas activity that may be going on out there," said Stephen Treacy, BWASP's research manager. "We want to make sure that we have information that shows that they are pretty much migrating normally."

A normal migration is important because the whale is an endangered species and because it is central to the culture of three Alaskan Indian villages in northern Alaska. The bowhead "is used for food, but it's more than that," said Robert Suydam, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Wildlife Management in Alaska's North Slope Borough. "It's an important part of the culture.... It's the central aspect of the culture."

Current Monitoring Process

To monitor the whale currently, MMS married information technology with low-tech aerial observation. During September and October, a three-person team of MMS workers takes off from the Alaskan coast in a bubble-windowed Twin Otter plane. When bowheads are spotted, the team uses a laptop connected to the plane's Global Positioning System unit to record the location of the whales. Team members also use the laptop to record other observations, such as the direction the whales are heading and the number of whales spotted.

But the program that the team uses to record its observations was written in the older software language Turbo Pascal, which stores data in a raw format. After flights, the team must convert the data into the popular dBase database format, which the team then uses to analyze the data and import it into a mapping program that graphically represents where whales were spotted and the direction they traveled.

Treacy said the team uses a mixture of custom-made and off-the-shelf statistical software to allow team members to look for patterns and to compare migration habits, such as whales' median swimming depth, from year to year. Treacy said he passes the information on to the National Marine Fisheries Service and to MMS' Anchorage office."

The information that's sent on the whales...is used to help implement existing mitigating measures and stipulations that have been placed on the oil industry," Treacy said. Those measures include advising oil-drilling operations to limit activities, such as exploration with seismic devices, in waters that are likely to be trafficked by the bowheads.

Treacy hopes SAIC will develop software that could provide an all-in-one solution for BWASP.

An SAIC spokeswoman said company officials declined to comment on the award until it is finalized.

Treacy expects the new software will reduce the amount of time it takes to analyze the data, and this reduction will improve monitoring.

The time savings could open doors to more intensive observation and study of the bowhead. "This way, [data] is already in the computer, so you can start your analysis right away," said Kim Marshall, director of ocean programs at the Lincoln, Mass.-based Whale Conservation Institute, which uses an off-the-shelf program called Navigate! by Fair Tide Technologies to track the migration of whales. "We're actually able to focus more on behavior and things like that."

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