New tool aims to map whale movement

BAR HARBOR — A lot of people want to know where right whales are and where they are going. As the state’s lobster fishery faces dramatic changes to preserve the species, regulators, fishermen and conservationists all want to know the paths the critically endangered species take up and down the east coast.  

“We’re constantly being asked ‘Where did you get detections?’” said Genevieve Davis, a research biologist working in passive acoustic research at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass.  

To help visualize the paths of right whales, as well as several other species of whale, Davis and other researchers created a mapping tool based on data from underwater listening devices that have picked up the sounds of whales going all the way back to 2004.  

The map includes data from several different listening devices, known as hydrophones, operated from platforms such as bottom-mounted moorings, surface buoys, Slocum gliders and towed hydrophone arrays. It also brought together data from several different studies and researchers and compiled them into a single, navigable tool.  

“Having them in one place is really valuable because you can understand what’s happening,” Davis said.  

The tool, dubbed the passive acoustic cetacean map, is the first of its kind web application, structured similarly to a project done in Canada.  

Having this compilation of data that pinpoints the location of North Atlantic right whales along the coast could help fishery managers make better decisions on measures to take to preserve the species.  

“It’s important to know when and where specifically to better conserve this species,” Davis said.  

There are some limitations to the data. The acoustic detections only show the time and place animals are heard calling, so if a whale is silent, there is no data. For right whales, there needs to be at least three sounds picked up in a day to be a confirmed detection. That means the detections they do have are certain locations of the whales, though they can’t confirm whales aren’t in other areas, too.  

“Just because we say they’re not there, doesn’t mean they’re not there,” Davis said. They could be just not making any noise.” 

The eventual goal for the project is to get data to upload immediately and continuously to the map, giving people real-time information about where whales are being detected.  

A new tool from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center maps out the presence of whales using data from several different underwater listening devices, including archival passive acoustic recordings, real-time acoustic data collection and active acoustics. Scientists hope the tool will help scientists and fisheries managers.

Whales have been detected recently around popular feeding grounds, including off Nova Scotia, around Cape Cod and in the Gulf of Lawrence. Many lobstermen have denied the whales’ presence in the area, with several saying they’ve never seen one before.  

Patrice McCarron, the head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said that the visualization of the map would be helpful to fishermen, but the map could only go so far on acoustics alone. It couldn’t get down to fine enough detail to fill in gaps about the whale’s whereabouts, but it’s a start.  

That data is important,” she said. “We definitely need more of it.” 

McCarron said the recent data is consistent with the industry’s claims that right whales don’t come close to the shore, where a majority of the state’s lobstermen fish.  

“That’s nowhere near where we fish,” she said. 

Bill McWeeny, a retired science teacher from Brooksville who has studied right whales and works with the New England Aquarium’s right whale team, also felt that it was a good start, but hoped for more ways to track them.  

“I think it’s useful,” he said. “I’m glad it’s being done. I just don’t think it’s the end all.”  

McWeeny has been working to get sightings that could be backed up by photos and other evidence on to these types of maps, even if they weren’t made by official survey crews, to provide more information. 

He also warned against reading it as the definitive tracker of whales. Just because the map might not show whale detections in a certain area doesn’t mean there aren’t whales near where Maine fishermen fish.   

“If we get a few pings in an area, that doesn’t mean there’s only a few whales there,” McWeeny said. “The question is, where are they? I think the answer is just about anywhere.”  

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.

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