What’s Good for the Ocean May Also Be Good for Business


Others, too, see the value of working with industry groups. Whale Safe is an initiative from the University of California Santa Barbara to help big ships avoid hitting whales as they travel through ports around Los Angeles. The program came, in part, as a response to shipping companies asking for help, according to Douglas McCauley, a professor of ocean science at U.C.S.B.

Ship strikes, as they are known, are among the leading causes of death for whales, and 2018 and 2019 were the worst years on record for collisions on the West Coast, with 27 total resulting in 22 deaths, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists estimate that the actual number of whales killed by ships could be much higher — as many as 80 a year off the West Coast, according to one study — because not all of the bodies are discovered.

Dr. McCauley helped bring together ocean technologists working at U.C.S.B. to build a near real-time detection system for whales in the Santa Barbara Channel, combining three inputs: an artificial intelligence algorithm that analyzes whale sounds, classifies them by species, and sends the data for review; a remote sensing system that predictively forecasts whale presence; and plain old citizen science, where trained whale watchers log whales into a mobile app.

“It’s not helpful if you’re only able to say, ‘Southern California is forecast to be cloudy with a chance of blue whales,” and this model forecasts at a much finer scale, Dr. McCauley said.

The system delivers the information to ships in a simplified rubric of low, medium, high and very high, so that they can slow if whales are around, which can significantly reduce the number of ship strikes. Whale Safe provides data about only this particular stretch of the California coast, but Dr. McCauley said they were planning to expand to San Francisco and possibly elsewhere in North America.

When ships reduce their speed they use less fuel, resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants; the global shipping industry accounts for nearly 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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