Northwest News

Boat strikes kill Pacific Northwest whales. Can this new app help ferries avoid them?

Boat strikes in the Pacific Northwest can be deadly for whales — including struggling, endangered orca populations in the area.

That’s one reason Washington State Ferries are adopting a new app this week to report whale sightings and track the animals’ locations, in hopes that the app can help boat crews avoid the animals, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The system “will provide our ferry captains more accurate and updated location of whales, dolphins and porpoises throughout Puget Sound,” the agency wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “This will help in making decisions to change course or reduce speeds to avoid encountering marine life.”

Operations center staff will be able to remotely track whales’ behavior and relay it back to ferry workers — including key details such as the “species observed, direction of travel, time of the report and number in the group,” according to the transportation department.

“They can slow down or avoid those whales, and give them more room as they’re going by to reduce the impacts, particularly of the noise of the vessel for the Southern Resident Killer Whale,” said Kevin Bartoy, environmental stewardship director for the ferries, according to KIRO Radio.

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Anyone can download the app to report whale sightings, but only commercial boats such as ferries can see the whale-tracking data, KIRO reported.

“We don’t want to tell a bunch of people where the whales are and then there’s more vessel pressure on these whales, which is the exact opposite of our intention,” said Jessica Scott of Cetacean Sightings Network, per Q13 FOX. “That’s why it’s just for commercial mariners.”

Canadian boats operating in Puget Sound already use the app, but “Ocean Wise, which created the app, said they hope Port of Seattle and the U.S. Navy will pick it up as well,” according to Q13 FOX.

The app was launched last year, according to the British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network, in response to the fact that “12 of the 27 species of (whale, dolphin and porpoise) found in B.C. are currently listed as ‘At Risk’ under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.”

About 7,000 people use the app in British Columbia, KIRO reported — but Washington State Ferries will be the first to use it on the Washington side of the border. It comes as the southern resident orca population in the area has dwindled to 73, according to the radio station.

A pair of orcas swim in view of a state ferry crossing from Bainbridge Island toward Seattle in the Puget Sound, as seen some miles away from Seattle in 2013. State officials hope a new app will help protect the endangered whales from ferries. Elaine Thompson AP

But it’s not just orcas that are threatened by human vessels.

Earlier this year, a ferry traveling from Seattle to Bainbridge Island struck a young humpback whale in a possibly deadly incident that the Seattle Times reported is “likely to be repeated because whale migrations and ship traffic in the Salish Sea are both increasing.”

“The whale surfaced after being struck and gushing a lot of blood,” Beth Andrus of Seattle said after the May whale strike, per the Times. “It surfaced a few more times before sinking.”

John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia said that at least 90 percent of whales die after being struck by large boats, according to the Times.

The app can be downloaded on both Apple and Android phones.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.