Timing is everything when it comes to managing areas in the Gulf of Maine where endangered North Atlantic right whales gather. The sooner the whales are spotted, the sooner NOAA officials can restrict fishing and shipping to protect them.
On the flip side, the sooner it's established that whales have left, the sooner ocean commerce can recommence.
But the process of spotting right whales often lags, as it depends largely on researchers spotting the whales by boat or by plane. The gulf is too large to cover quickly and weather often hampers spotting efforts, said Sofie Van Parijs, program leader for the passive acoustics group within the Protected Species Branch at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center. "We struggle in the wintertime because the weather is so bad," Van Parijs said.
This past year, however, NOAA researchers have employed new technology to make real-time assessments of right whale movements in the gulf. This winter, they've outfitted underwater robots with new technology that allows the robots to transmit and analyze data on potential right whale calls within an hour of recording the sounds. Once researchers receive the data, they can confirm the presence of right whales using traditional methods.
This was the first time the new technology has been used, and it's already led to the establishment of dynamic management area in Jordan's Basin, Van Parijs said. The first season of using the new technology has led to some surprises, she said. "You will find right whales around when you thought they wouldn’t be around," Van Parijs said.
Researchers have long depended upon underwater recording technology to track right whales and other species of whales, but the recording devices were often stationary or attached to a boat, limiting their range. Then, about five years ago, researchers began employing underwater glider technology to create mobile recorders to "hunt" the whales. That innovation in itself has been a boon to researchers, but they would have to wait to analyze the data, Van Parijs said.
More recently, a team of researchers, led by scientists Mark Baumgartner and Dave Fratantoni of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, improved the glider technology to give the computer system the ability to analyze whale songs and environmental cues while on a mission and to relay that information within an hour. The goal of creating the new technology is to shorten the time between information-gathering and decision-making, Fratantoni said. "If your goal is to protect marine mammals in a busy shipping lane or subject to fishing pressure, you're able to make those decisions now rather than wait days or weeks," Fratantoni said.
The new technology also helps researchers direct the gliders while they are out in the water, Van Parijs said. If researchers receive data that interests them, they can change the glider’s trajectory to get more information.
Although the program has proven successful in its first field runs, it lacks the funding to be used regularly, Van Parijs said. Her program is now seeking expanded funding to make glider usage a regular tool in researchers' toolbox. She argues that real-time responsiveness could become even more important as the whales seem to be changing their behavior in reaction to the warming waters in the Gulf of Maine.
"They seem to be coming here earlier and they seem to be moving further offshore," Van Parijs said. And she is looking for funding to expand glider use to assist researchers in tracking other species. She believes the gliders can help find and protect unknown spawning grounds of other threatened species, including cod.