IT helps protect endangered whale

The Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were among the organizations that late last month unveiled a new system to help ships avoid colliding with and killing an endangered whale in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Starting this month, most commercial ships entering two important feeding and breeding areas of the right whale will use the Mandatory Ship Reporting System (MSRS) to send and receive important information about where right whales are located and how to avoid them.

This project is unique in that it is the first mandatory ship reporting system in the United States that specifically focuses on a single species, said Lt. Bob Clarke, protected living marine resource specialist at the Coast Guard headquarters' Fisheries Enforcement Division.

"Ship collisions are the largest known human-induced cause of mortality of right whales," Clarke said. "It only takes a couple whales a year to make the difference between long-term recovery and long-term decline. Even if we save a few whales, it makes a difference."

Right whales in particular are susceptible to ship collisions because they spend much of their time feeding and resting at the surface of the water, are slow-moving and are difficult to spot because of their dark color and low profile. In addition, their breeding and nursing areas are located in busy shipping lanes. Whalers considered the animals the "right whale" to hunt because they were slow, migrated close to shore and stayed afloat after being killed.

MSRS, which has international approval, will operate year-round in a feeding area off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., and from Nov. 15 through April 15 in a nursery area near the Georgia/Florida border. When a ship enters a designated right whale area, it must send an e-mail message via satellite or telex to a server, which stores the message's details, including vessel name, speed and location. Performance Engineering Corp., Fairfax, Va., built the system under a task order from the Coast Guard, and the company maintains the server.

The server then sends a reply message back to the ship relaying the latest information it has received from NOAA observations on such factors as where a right whale was last spotted in the area and how to avoid the animal. Also, the Coast Guard can send e-mail to the server based on information radioed in from ships that do not have a satellite terminal.

The project is the product of a collaboration by the Coast Guard, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in an effort to save the estimated 300 remaining right whales off the East Coast of the United States.

This is the first time that private industry—in this case, the shipping industry—has agreed to report its boats' locations and proceed with caution in those areas where right whales have been spotted, said Chris Mantzaris, division chief for the protected resource division of NMFS' northeast region.

"We're responsible for trying to prevent the deaths of these animals," he said. "We're excited because this is the beginning of educating mariners. This couldn't happen unless the technology was in place."

Using a virtual private network, NMFS employees can access the system database to run customized reports and queries.

Jared Blumenfeld, director of the IFAW habitat program, said the new system is a significant first step in protecting the right whale. In the meantime, the group is developing an acoustic buoy that will detect where a right whale is located. It also plans to use NOAA satellite imagery of sea surface temperatures to help determine where the right whale feeds. "The kinds of protection right whales need will have to expand," Blumenfeld said.

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