Project aims to protect gear from whale depredation

A $245,000 federal grant awarded to the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association will be used for a project to detect sperm whales up to eight miles away and help harvesters avoid depredation on longline gear by alerting a network of fishermen.

The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration involving fishermen, NOAA fishery managers, university-based biologists and hydrophone equipment developers. It builds on work done by the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Network (SEASWAP) in a 2016 pilot study, applying knowledge gained in that project to automate a real time whale depredation avoidance network in the eastern Gulf of Alaska.

The goal is to provide fishermen with an effective means of detecting sperm whales before setting gear, to facilitate sharing this information with a network of fishermen, and assist the fleet in avoiding sperm whale depredation, said Dan Falvey, research director for ALFA.

With support of the NOAA Bycatch Reduction and Engineering Program, which provided the grant, ALFA hopes to turn towed array hydrophone systems into a plug and play tool for the longline fleet, he said.

The first step will be to use 2016 field data to improve automated detection/localization functions, improve the user interface, incorporate automated real time sharing of whale detection data to allow avoidance, and upgrade existing SEASWAP hydrophone hardware.

Next comes field testing of the upgraded software/hardware on commercial fishing vessels, and finally, incorporation of the upgraded systems into ALFA’s whale avoidance network.

“Sperm whale depredation on longline gear poses an economic challenge to fishermen and complicates stock assessment for fisheries managers: said Linda Behnken executive director of ALFA. “Fishermen need tools to avoid whale depredation and this support from NOAA’s BREP will allow us to create fishermen- and whale-friendly tools.”