SeaDetect: a project to reduce collisions between large whales and ships
Tethys is a partner of LIFE-SEADETECT, a project aimed at creating an automated system for reducing the risk of collision between vessels and marine mammals or other floating obstacles.
Collisions with boats, particularly high-speed ones, are among the leading causes of non-natural mortality for large cetaceans in all oceans, but especially in the Pelagos Sanctuary, a SPAMI in the North-Western Mediterranean specifically designated to protect marine mammals.
LIFE-SEADETECT is a European collaborative project involving 11 participating organisations from 3 countries (France, Belgium, Italy), led by Naval Group. The goal is the implementation of three complementary systems:
- a network of passive acoustic monitoring buoys designed to detect cetaceans through hydrophones;
- an on-board system with multiple high-sensitive complementary sensors, fused and processed with artificial intelligence in order to allow equipped vessels to self-detect unidentified floating objects, especially large marine mammals;
- a dedicated application to share the detection of whales or obstacles with vessels in the area.
The Pelagos Sanctuary is a particularly high-risk area, due to a high density of both cetaceans and vessels. It has been estimated that along the route of large ships to and from Corsica in summer there are no less than two potential collisions per week. Passenger ships cross risk-areas 60% of the time, and maritime traffic has increased by 50% in the last decade alone.
Eight to 40 fin whales per year are estimated to potentially suffer a collision event, but the whole scientific community agrees that figures are largely underestimated since only known cases are being taken into account. Several means of mitigation have been proposed, but nothing has proved to be a conclusive solution until now: moving the routes would not work in the Sanctuary since the two large species, fin (Balaenoptera physalus) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), use different habitats.
However, imposing a drastic slowdown of vessels often clashes with the needs of shipping companies. Large ships, on their end, face various difficulties: from the bridge of a freighter hundreds of meters long it may be impossible to spot an animal right under the bow, and sightings can be done effectively only with a flat sea and in daylight.
In an attempt to overcome these difficulties, the LIFE SEADETECT system can ensure the detection of cetaceans day and night in real-time, with a radius range of 1 km in most of the weather conditions. It started at the end of 2022 and will have a duration of 4 years. The aim is to significantly contribute to mitigate the biodiversity loss when it comes to whales, both in the Mediterranean and in other areas.
Project title: Marine automated DETECTion and anti-collision system with cetaceans [SeaDetect]
Grant agreement: n°101070722
Duration: 09/2022 – 12/2026
Tethys has brought the problem of collisions to the attention of institutions and of the public already over 20 years ago, and has continued to monitor the impact on large cetaceans over time. More recently it has conducted a study headed by Simone Panigada and financed by the Permanent Secretariat of the Pelagos Agreement, published in 2020: Proposal to develop and evaluate mitigation strategies to reduce the risk of ship strikes to fin and sperm whales in the Pelagos Sanctuary
The study was carried out in collaboration with British Antarctic Survey, International Fund for Animal Welfare, QuietOceans, Souffleurs d’Ecume, WWF France. Within the LIFE SEADETECT project, Tethys will be involved in several activities, among which the assessment of the whales’ behaviour. The Institute is the leader of the study regarding surface behaviour of whales (evaluation of status and responses to approaching vessels, through interbreath interval and respiration rate measurements). Tethys will also contribute to the analyses of telemetry data.