Protecting Marine Mammals Through New Technology

50 years after the Endangered Species Act passed, new marine mammal mitigation technologies are helping protect our ocean species

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a critical law that protects our country’s most imperiled species on land and at sea. 

This anniversary sends me back in time to reflect on the history that gave birth to this law. In the 1970s, there were growing concerns from citizens and leaders alike about the impacts of human activity on wildlife. Centuries of whaling had heavily depleted many whale populations. While commercial whaling was no longer practiced in U.S. waters, these recovering whale species faced new threats. Global trade was picking up steam, with goods moving across our seas in ocean freighters. And the commercial fishing industry boomed with few restrictions on where or how you could fish.

At the time, the introduction of the ESA and, similarly, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), were innovative solutions to protect wildlife amid this activity in our ocean. 

Today, our society’s economic demands on the ocean are much higher and continue to increase. Global commerce is at record levels, moving in container ships six times larger than in the 1970s. Lost or discarded fishing gear, known as ghost gear, presents another threat to whales and other wildlife. Despite improvements in fishing gear in the past decades, recent studies have found that as high as 86% of floating trash in the Great Pacific garbage patch is ghost gear. And the fossil fuel industry has more than 3,500 structures used for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico alone. 

On top of this, a century of burning oil and gas has warmed our ocean waters. This impacts marine food systems and migration patterns for species from zooplankton to whales. Now, as we work to address climate change, new industries, such as offshore wind, will operate in our shared waters. With many industries using our ocean, we must work together to ensure the safety of the marine life that calls our waters home.

While ESA and MMPA remain critical laws, we need more tools to pair with them to effectively protect marine mammals, especially our endangered whale species. 

Particularly, we are seeing new protections for ocean wildlife develop in the offshore wind sector. Government agencies, researchers, environmental nonprofits and the offshore wind industry are joining forces through the Regional Wildlife Science Collaborative for Offshore Wind. Together, they are working to advance mitigation technologies to protect ocean wildlife. Specifically, they are developing a set of criteria to verify the effectiveness of new solutions and technologies for protecting whales. 

Below are a few measures and technologies within the offshore wind sector that have proven effective or are gaining traction to help reduce risk to endangered whale species like the North Atlantic right whale. While these measures may seem straightforward, some come with tradeoffs given the complexities of our ocean economies.

  • Using protected species observers: Protected species observers (PSOs) are trained third-party professionals who are hired by developers as part of monitoring teams on vessels. Their job is to identify any marine mammals or turtles within range and work to prevent harm to them. They minimize the possibility of a vessel coming into direct contact with the animals and stop any noise disturbances until they have left. PSOs have shown proven results, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to require them for a range of ocean activity, including all offshore wind surveying and development. 
  • Incorporating passive acoustic monitoring underwater: Passive acoustic monitoring is a new technology that uses underwater microphones to detect sounds made by marine mammals, fish and other sources. These data collectors come in many forms, including seafloor-mounted devices, floating buoys streaming data in real-time, remotely operated vehicles and devices on ships. This monitoring can help detect underwater animals so that vessels can slow down or stop surveying or construction work. Whales don’t always make noise, so sound monitoring must be combined with visual observers and other technologies. Offshore wind developers are investing in these technologies and using data from this monitoring to predict when and where these mammals can be found. 
  • Adding infrared cameras at the surface: Infrared cameras, or thermal imaging, are an evolving technology that can detect surfacing whales. They detect the temperature difference between the cold water and the warmth of a whale’s body and the air they exhale.. These cameras are focused on the water’s surface and work in tandem with human observers. This technology is being tested by offshore wind developers along the East Coast. If they perform better than human observer standards, they may open up new opportunities to monitor whales around sites. 
  • Reducing speeds to 10 knots: Vessel strikes are among the leading causes of deaths for whales like the North Atlantic right whale. One of the most effective, proven and simple strategies for preventing these deaths is a 10-knot vessel speed restriction. Lower vessel speeds particularly for large ships, like cargo ships, can significantly reduce fatal collisions with whales. Federal restrictions on large vessel speeds in nearshore areas are already in place.

We must continue to test and prove these, and other measures and technologies, are effective at protecting marine life in our shared seas. This will help enable them to become standard practice for all ocean activity, whether shipping or offshore wind development. Ocean Conservancy is working to ensure offshore wind is developed responsibly and implements these solutions to protect our ocean’s vital ecosystems and wildlife. With collaboration and a new era of innovation, we can continue to uphold the promise of the Endangered Species Act for the next 50 years.

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