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COMMERCIAL SHIP BEHAVIOR AND RIGHT WHALE SIGHTING ADVISORY

Ship collision is a major mortality threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. To mitigate this threat, NOAA Fisheries initiated the Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) that designates advisory zones (AZs) around right whale sightings. The program's goal is to have large ships route around or slow down when transiting AZs, thereby reducing collision risk. The efficacy of the program, however, had not been evaluated because of difficulties documenting ship behavior.

With the development and implementation of the United States Coast Guard's Universal Shipborne Automatic Identification System (AIS), a VHF tracking system that sends information about a ship's speed, heading and position to other vessels and shore-based stations, such evaluations became feasible. Researchers at the sanctuary collaborated with NOAA Fisheries Northeast Science Center to quantify and assess ship behavior. Coast Guard data for the Great South Channel region were analyzed for May, 2005, concurrent with NOAA's identification of a number of AZs. A GIS map was used to analyze forty AIS vessel tracks. Two analyses were conducted: a visual inspection for signs of rerouting, and a statistical summary of a vessel's speed in and out of AZs. If vessels did not reroute (i.e., steer around the AZs), researchers looked for indications that vessels reduced speed or slowed to the twelve knots recommended by the NOAA.

Only one of the sampled vessels appeared to have rerouted to avoid the highest concentrations of right whales. Only two vessels reduced their speeds to below 12 knots while passing through AZs (5% compliance). Five vessels reduced their speeds to an average that was below 12 knots (12.5% compliance). These data suggest that RWSAS information was not adequately received and/or not responded to by vessels. Improvements in information dissemination and/or incentives for compliance are recommended.

Large Vessel
Large vessel utilizing the Boston Traffic Separtation Scheme.

Right Whale
North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis)

RW Advisory
Right Whale Advisory Zones (red circles) were identified through NOAA aerial surveys.


AIS Tracks
Example of vessel tracks (black lines) derived from the US Coast Guard's AIS records.


Moller, J. C., Wiley, D. N., Cole, T. V. N., Niemeyer, M., and Rosner, A. 2005. The behavior of commercial ships relative to right whale advisory zones in the Great South Channel during May of 2005. The 16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Society for Marine Mammalogy; San Diego, CA; December 12-16.

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