Warning buoy network saves Right Whales

A new network of smart buoys is adding some much needed protection for endangered Right Whales in Massachusetts Bay's shipping lanes which see some 1,500 ships pass through every year.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution deployed the 10-buoy Right Whale Listening Network that can recognize whales' distinctive calls and route the information to a public Web site and a marine warning system, giving ships the chance to avoid deadly collisions. An extraordinary large number of North Atlantic right whales were in the bay earlier this month.

A Boston Globe report said aerial surveys done by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies determined that about 79 of the world's remaining 350 right whales - 22% -- were feeding in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Cape Cod Bay on April 10. As of this writing 61 Right Whale calls had been detected in the past 24 hours according to the research Web Site.

Each auto-detection buoy recognizes the right whale's call, automatically rings up recorders at the lab and uploads the sound. Analysts verify the call and then feed the signals to the listening network's Web site and to the Northeast US Right Whale Sighting Advisory System, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), researchers said in a release.

The network of buoys is strategically placed between inbound and outbound shipping lanes, and each buoy listens in a 5-mile radius, providing information on where collision risks are highest. To help protect whales when they are quiet, alerts remain in effect around a buoy for 24 hours after a call is detected.

The buoy system was installed to reduce hits by ships traveling to and from a new liquefied natural gas terminal, built last year by Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port in Massachusetts Bay, offshore of Boston. NOAA officials mandated that the company take measures to avoid collisions between right whales and the terminal's 90,000-ton supply tankers, researcher said.

Under a $47 million contract with the company, the Lab of Ornithology will operate the buoy array over the terminal's 40-year expected lifetime. Liquefied natural gas tankers must now slow to 10 knots in response to buoy alerts and post lookouts for whales and sea turtles.

Researcher hope the reduced speeds from tankers will set a precedent for other ships, which are not required to slow down. Living 60 years or more, right whales skim tiny plankton from the shallow coastal waters of the Atlantic. Each winter and spring, many right whales congregate -- along with fin, minke and humpback whales -- in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston Harbor.

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