By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Marine biologists have begun testing a smartphone application that would allow boaters and conservationists to identify whales outside San Francisco Bay so ships can avoid striking the endangered mammals.
Whale Spotter, the app developed by Conserve.IO, will be used to map the feeding grounds of the enormous creatures, which large ships too frequently strike as they migrate along the California coast.
Among the areas of greatest concern for marine biologists and environmentalists are five California marine sanctuaries, two that shippers must pass through when they navigate into San Francisco Bay.
"This app is an opportunity for citizen scientists - people who love these waters - to contribute to protecting whales in the sanctuaries, giving us extra eyes on the water," Jackie Dragon, a Greenpeace campaigner, told Reuters.
Trained observers with an interest in whales will use the application to report their whale sightings, along with the animals' behaviors, to a global database. Biologists will use information from the app to map the whales' locations.
In June, new information about migratory patterns led to the rerouting of three shipping lanes into the San Francisco Bay, but scientists say they need more information on the location of whales along the California coast.
Large vessels struck whales at least 100 times in California between 1988 and 2012, said Monica DeAngelis, a National Marine Fisheries Service marine mammal biologist.
She estimates the true number could be 10 times higher given that whale injuries tend to go unreported. Once struck, the creatures often sink to the ocean's bottom.
ENDANGERED RIGHT AND BLUE WHALES
Commercial shippers use another, similar app called Whale Alert along the U.S. Atlantic Coast to try to steer clear of critically endangered right whales, only 400 of which remain in the East Coast, said Brad Winney, co-founder of mobile technology company Conserve.IO, developer of both apps.
Winney expects to ultimately merge the two applications that would become available to shippers on global seas.
"The vision of Whale Alert and Spotter is to support the worldwide collection of data to help shippers avoid whale habitats and avoid striking and killing whales," he said.
In Boston Harbor, the app includes a sonic-sensing system that listens for the sound of the call of the right whale, although that capability is not currently envisioned beyond Boston because of the expense, Winney said.
California biologists are most concerned about protecting endangered blue whales, the largest animals on the planet. About 2,000 blue whales remain along the West Coast, and biologists believe ships are striking them as well, DeAngelis said.
The 3,500 or so large vessels that travel through the Golden Gate must pass through one or two marine sanctuaries, said John Berge, vice president of Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents shipping companies.
Biologists are hopeful that boaters who use the app along the California coast will be better able to prevent collisions with the animals.
"I don't think it's the ultimate solution, but I think it's one tool to provide a better picture of where the whales are and hopefully to develop management strategies to avoid striking," Berge said.
A whale spotted in San Francisco Bay last week nearly caused the postponement of a race for the prized America's Cup.
Five dead blue whales, one a pregnant female, washed ashore in Southern California in 2007, raising awareness about the problem, Greenpeace's Dragon said.
"We're hopeful the public will see this as a great opportunity to help steward these waters and help us protect whales," she said. "Instead of having one or two eyes on the Bay, this is a chance to bring many eyes to the water."
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston and Diane Craft)