Researchers hoping to steer commercial ships clear of feeding whales off the coast of Northern California have developed a new app, aimed at creating a brigade of citizen spotters.
The Spotter Pro Field Observation App, or “whale spotter” allows anyone with a smart phone to record the location of a whale they might come across, whether it’s during a whale watching expedition or sailing trip.
The app was developed by Point Blue Conservation Science, an environmental group studying whale movements off the Bay Area’s coast.
“We really need eyes on the water all the time,” said Point Blue researcher Jaime Jahncke. “Having the app allows every citizen out there to help us.”
The group teamed-up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to try and figure out how to better adjust commercial shipping lanes to avoid popular whale feeding grounds.
Last year, at least five whales washed ashore in the Bay Area with having been hit by commercial vessels. Scientists believe that number represents about ten percent of the total number of whales hit and killed by ships.
In June, the U.S. Coast Guard altered shipping lanes to try and avoid areas frequented by feeding humpbacks and blue whales. But Jahncke said the new lanes only avoid about seventy percent of popular whale areas.
“The vessels still travel over very important habitat areas where we have high densities of animals,” said Jahncke.
NOAA estimated 1,800 to 2,000 blue whales travel to the area every year to feed.
“If you get two or three blue whales struck,” said Jan Roletto, a researcher with NOAA, “that’s a big piece of the population.”
Roletto said the information recorded by citizen observers on the new app is relayed to Point Blue. It can then be relayed to NOAA which can quickly notify vessels traveling through those areas.
“The shippers hear an announcement when they come into the area,” said Roletto, “that there are whales in the area and to slow down and to be careful.”
This coming week, researchers will head out to whale feeding grounds from Monterey to the Point Reyes National Seashore, studying whale movements and their food sources.
They plan to compare their data to that collected by the citizen observers using the app.
Roletto said the research will help determine how effective the Coast Guard’s new shipping lanes are in keeping ships and whales apart. It could also yield new routes aimed at keeping whales and ships apart.