[MARMAM] Report of second workshop on Right Whale Acoustics: Practical Applications in Conservation

Gillespie, Douglas dgillespie at ifaw.org
Wed Feb 22 01:50:46 PST 2006

The report of the Second Workshop on Right Whale Acoustics: Practical Applications in Conservation, is now available at www.ifaw.org/us/rightwhales (29page pdf document; 1.5 MBytes download).
Executive Summary
Since the first workshop on Right Whale Acoustics: Practical Applications in Conservation, held at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on 8-9 March 2001, a great deal of progress has been made in the field of passive acoustic monitoring for right whales. Although passive acoustic monitoring has successfully been used to find and study right whales on a number of projects, there is an urgent need to incorporate these new technologies into effective management measures to prevent the continuing deaths of North Atlantic right whales along the United States east coast. 

Right whales are killed by collisions with ships and due to entanglement in fishing gear. US Government agencies, working closely with scientific and other stakeholder groups are developing measures that it is hoped will reduce the number of deaths. The primary methods by which they aim to do this are: i) identifying high risk areas where concentrations of right whales are present (or likely to be present) and reducing the likelihood of interactions by re-routing ships and restricting the use of, or requiring modifications to, fishing gear in order to reduce entanglement risk; ii) in situations where re-routing vessels is not possible then speed restrictions may be imposed to reduce the chance of serious injury.  Implementation of these measures requires the best possible data on right whale locations both over the long term (i.e. seasonal distribution) and also up to date real time information. 

The main technologies available in 2001 for long term monitoring used bottom mounted autonomous recording units (ARU's). Not only could the data from these devices not be accessed until they were retrieved, but analysis usually required a human operator to manually go through the data looking for right whale calls; a task that could take many months to complete.  Since 2001, a great deal of progress has been made both in software algorithms to automatically detect right whale sounds and also in hardware solutions for data collection and transport. Today, technologies are available which can automatically collect, analyze and transmit to shore, detections of right whale vocalizations from remote locations in near real-time using advanced signal processing techniques and satellite communications technology.

The workshop agreed that now that the basic technology for automatic detection of right whales has been developed, a number of possibilities arise.  These include incorporating systems into the type of data buoy commonly operated by the National Data Buoy Center and possibly also on those operated by the US Coastguard.  Approaches to these organizations to discuss possibilities would now be timely.

One priority question that was identified is whether the 30nm radius around port entrances in the proposed rules for shipping in the mid-Atlantic is sufficient.  Data from a line of ARUs deployed perpendicular to the shore in the South East US in 2005 could address this question. The workshop recommended that analysis of these data should be given high priority.

The information reviewed at the 2001 workshop showed a reasonable understanding of the type of sounds that right whales produce and how often they vocalize in Northeast US waters. In addition, a number of studies have been underway that will provide further data in the near future on the frequency of call types in particular geographic locations and the behavioral context in which calls are produced. At least two studies that will help to assess the number of whales present from the received vocalizations are also ongoing. Understanding the behavioral context in which calls are made may help to predict the likelihood of persistent aggregations forming.

Recent studies using multiple receivers with synchronized clocks have shown that it is possible to track right whales rather than just measure presence/absence in a general area. However, location errors are generally several hundreds of meters, which would not be adequate for the routing of individual ships around individual whales. Accuracy may be improved if detailed sound speed profile information is available.

In summary, passive acoustic systems now have the potential to be a powerful tool in providing data for effective risk reduction measures.  This workshop report attempts to provide an overview of what can, and in some cases what can't, be achieved with passive acoustic monitoring for right whales.  It is our hope that this information will help to guide the implementation of effective management to reduce anthropogenic mortality in this species. 
Douglas Gillepsie
dgillespie at ifaw.org
Song of the Whale Research Team
International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW -- www.ifaw.org) works to improve the welfare of wild and domestic animals throughout the world by reducing commercial exploitation of animals, protecting wildlife habitats, and assisting animals in distress. IFAW seeks to motivate the public to prevent cruelty to animals and to promote animal welfare and conservation policies that advance the well-being of both animals and people.
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