Protecting whales, dolphins, and porpoises is an incredibly difficult job. It’s got to be up there with “Publicist for Kanye” or “CEO of Barnes and Noble” as having one of the lowest success rates of any occupation. The oceans these days are pretty much stacked against these charismatic marine mammals. Between getting hit by boats, tangled up in fishing gear, poisoned by oil spills or plastic debris, or confused and stranded from noise pollution, cetaceans face a lot of risks throughout their life. These threats exclude those resulting from climate change, which can alter prey distributions and can make previously suitable areas completely uninhabitable in just a few decades time. Though protective policies like the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act have been put in place in the United States, they can’t provide safe environments for our global cetacean population by themselves. The most effective way to ensure the safety of whales, dolphins, and porpoises is to create either Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or areas with limited industrial and human influence for these mammals to reside in. However, since cetaceans are highly mobile and migratory, delineating certain coastlines or habitats for altered management has been slow going.
Now it’s a little easier, as Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Laboratory has made publicly available distribution and density maps of 35 species of cetaceans throughout the western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. This dataset was compiled from 23 years worth of observational and environmental information on whales, porpoises, and dolphins covering over one million linear kilometers of surveys. These 26,000 sightings are displayed in conjunction with ecological variables like sea surface temperatures and chlorophyll concentrations that can help policy makers better understand the distribution, abundance, and density of these marine mammals on a relevant and easily accessible spatial dataset.
This type of project is part of a growing movement in research and policy to visually convey complex and large data to the general public in ways that are easy to understand and implement. In addition to providing spatial context for wildlife management policies, these maps can also inform oil and gas companies, military strategists, and other industrial leaders which areas of the United States’ coastline are sensitive to disturbance and which do not necessarily harbor sensitive wildlife. They allow researchers greater access to observational and environmental data on many endangered cetaceans, which can ultimately help us gain a better understanding of these magnificent members of our planet.
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