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Innovating to Protect Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel

A long-term, multi-stakeholder approach to protecting whales and reducing pollution

Whale Picture

The Problem

The international shipping lanes in the Santa Barbara Channel lead to one of the busiest port complexes in the world. In an increasingly crowded ocean, the UC Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science & Management supports critical partnerships that allow ships and whales to coexist. “About 80 endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales are killed along the U.S. West Coast every year, but only 5-17% of strikes are detected, so in reality, the number is likely much higher. That’s where Whale Safe and the Vessel Speed Reduction Program come in,” said Callie Steffen (MESM ’20), project scientist at UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative.

The Solution

Sean Hastings, a Bren Lecturer and a policy and information management officer at the Sanctuary, and his Bren students had the idea of creating a “whale-credit trading program.” In 2014, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the Santa Barbara County and Ventura County Air Pollution Control Districts (APCD) developed an incentive-based Vessel Speed Reduction (VSR) program. Several Bren School Master’s Group Project students continue to refine the VSR program.

The program has a voluntary 10-knot speed limit for all large ships transiting through the important whale habitat in and around the Sanctuary. Research has shown that speed limits, when followed, appear to reduce the number of fatal collisions by 80-90%.

Measuring Up

Building off that early success to further address the growing problem of whale strikes, the Benioff Ocean Initiative and partners launched Whale Safe in 2020. Whale Safe is a technology-based mapping and analysis tool that collects and displays near real-time whale and ship data to help prevent fatal collisions. It integrates acoustic and visual whale detections with model predictions to provide mariners with the latest information on whale presence. Whale Safe also uses Automatic Identification System data to track ship speeds and calculate cooperation rates with voluntary speed limits that have been in place in the channel for over a decade thanks to the Bren School and partners.

Whale Picture

As part of Whale Safe, Callie helps the Benioff Ocean Initiative monitor ships that transit NOAA’s VSR zone for any ship that is 300 gross registered tons or larger through Automatic Identification System data from UCSB partner Global Fishing Watch. The data is ingested through Google Cloud Computing, and a series of daily scripts run to assess each ship’s speed and other characteristics. Each ship receives a report card. Their overall letter grade represents how many nautical miles they travel at 10 knots or lower, divided by how many total nautical miles they transit in the region. The company as a whole also gets a letter grade on their ships.

Shippers can access an application programming interface (API) that provides forecasts of whale activity. An underwater microphone detects sounds and processes them using an AI-powered computer, providing identification of blue, humpback, and fin whales in near real-time.

Looking Forward

VSR and Whale Safe illustrate how the Bren School works with a strong network of partners to create innovative environmental leaders and solutions.

Callie and Sean see opportunities to scale VSR, Whale Safe, and its field of research to decrease whale fatalities.

“Despite the incremental increase in cooperation with the number of miles being traveled by big ships at 10 knots or less, we are still not achieving the needed conservation goals to protect these endangered whales,” said Sean.

A little over 50% of the shipping traffic in this region has voluntarily slowed down as part of the incentive-based VSR. If 100% of the shipping traffic slowed, whale strikes would drop by half. Philanthropic support of Master’s Group Projects could expand this field of research, while support of Whale Safe and VSR could increase implementation.

Bren School student researchers have examined marketing and publicity incentives, the air quality and fuel consumption benefits of reduced vessel speed, the economic effects of slowing ships, and the value of the whale watch industry.

“A project like Whale Safe can be considered modular to fit the needs and interests of a specific region,” said Callie. “For example, does a whale sighting network need to be expanded in coverage? Could an additional acoustic system fill seasonal data gaps?”

Worldwide, these endangered species face multiple human-induced threats. Whale Safe and VSR have the opportunity to reduce fatalities by aiding data-driven decision-making. We are all connected to global maritime trade, and as it continues to increase, Whale Safe and VSR provide solutions to protect whales while balancing maritime commerce.

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