Scientists Use GPS to Spy on Whale Watch Tours, Uncover Ugly Secret

A Whale Watch TourApproximately 1 million people paid for tickets to go on whale watching cruises off the coast of Massachusetts and Maine in 2006. These sales generated around $21 million dollars for the companies who operate the boats: no small change.

While the public might have been enjoying the experience of seeing and learning more about endangered whales and other animals that sometimes use the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were concerned that perhaps the tours were affecting the whales negatively. Using spies armed with GPS receivers and high-tech binoculars, they set out to see if whale watch tour companies were upholding what are commonly referred to as “voluntary conservation agreements.”

Voluntary conservation agreements are just what they sound like, and are sometimes used as a management strategy with the hope that organizations will comply with mutually agreed-upon guidelines more readily and eagerly than legally-enforced regulations. In this case, the whale watch companies using the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary had all agreed to decrease their speeds when approaching whales, so as to prevent harmful collisions with the whales, and also decrease any other potential negative influences on the whales’ typical behavior.

David N. Wiley and his fellow researchers published their spy study in the latest issue of the prestigious journal Conservation Biology. They explained that it was crucial to determine whether or not the voluntary conservation agreements made by the whale watch companies were being followed because “the efficacy of these agreements is important to the conservation and management communities. Such a determination is particularly important for managers dealing with endangered species because reliance on a management tactic that is not working can cause species to decline further.”

How the Spies Collected Data

To discover whether or not the tour companies were in fact complying with the agreements, the researchers planted “paid passengers” on board of each of the major tour companies boats’ during the summers of 2003 and 2004. Armed with GPS units and high-tech binoculars, the observers discretely downloaded data directly from the devices to handheld PDAs. During the whale watch tour, an observer’s GPS unit pinpointed the geographical location of the boat every 5 seconds, as well as its speed and several other measures. The observers used their binoculars, which included laser rangefinders, to pinpoint the location of whales when the boats drew near.

After each trip, the data were then overlayed using GIS mapping software. The maps that were created allowed the scientists to ascertain the speed of boats at all times, and most importantly, when the boats were within close range of any whales that were sighted. So what did they find out?

An Ugly Truth about Whale Watch Tours

After all of the maps were examined, and all of the data analyzed, it was very clear that none of the whale watch tour companies were complying with the guidelines that they had agreed to follow. Each company operated its boats at speeds that were much higher than the suggested limits to help protect the whales. In what is probably over-gracious reasoning, the researchers write that “it is possible that our study presents an overly critical picture of the industry’s behavior. For example, guideline compliance might be extremely low because the guidelines are impossible to follow.” They further explain that sometimes it might not be possible for the boats to slow down because they only sight a whale after they are to close to it. But they also suggest that this explanation is generous, given that many tour companies alert each other to the presence of whales long beforehand.

As a final note of context, the researchers do suggest that in the summers of 2003 and 2004 (when the study was conducted), the number of whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary was extremely low. For this reason, after representatives from the tour companies saw the results of the study, they argued that they had an obligation to paying customers to do their best to see whales. Of course, while this makes sense, it also worsens our ability to protect endangered whales if tour companies are speeding along to reach any whales they see as fast as they can. As the researchers write, “it is unclear why those animals would be in less need of protection than whales in more abundant times.”

So What Does this Tell Us about Voluntary Conservation Agreements?

The results of this study are not encouraging in regard to the applied use of voluntary conservation agreements. In the case of whale watch tours, probably enforceable laws will be needed to protect whales and other species from harm, rather than the failed voluntary agreements. Wiley and his colleagues end by writing that “the challenge to scientists and managers is to bring participant behavior up to the standards needed for conservation, rather than dropping standards to a point where high levels of compliance can be achieved.”

While the researchers cite additional studies with results that also frown upon the effectiveness of voluntary conservation agreements, they do mention how one study indicated that harassment of waterfowl by boaters was reduced by voluntary conservation agreements, and that another showed that voluntary watershed protection agreements were quite successful in Costa Rica. For this reason, it becomes clear that using these agreements as a conservation strategy might work in some circumstances and not in others. Only with more research and evaluation we will know when they work and why.

Related on the GO Network:

Greenpeace versus Japan: Killing Not Necessary for Whale Research by Joshua S. Hill

International Whaling Moratorium Lifted = Biofuel Bonanza by Clayton B. Cornell

Photo Credit: Micah Mazier at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

7 thoughts on “Scientists Use GPS to Spy on Whale Watch Tours, Uncover Ugly Secret”

  1. Jerry O'Sullivan

    I have been on whale watches since the early eighties. When I first was on them there were little to no whales sighted. Yes all on the Stellwagen Bank, out of Provincetown. The cruises were extended until we saw something big or small. In the recent years I have seen a tremendous amount of whale activity. More than I have ever seen. Seeing whales come out of the water and showing off so to speak, The boats I had been on were extremely cautious on there approach. It was a wonderful experience. Almost tear jerking to see these huge animals seeming to be playing. I hope to see this still offered to us that really appreciate life and especially sea life.
    So as to add comment, the offenders should be treated the same as the people who do lobster scrubbing. Yes the lobster scrubbers are locals, that know better. Now lobster scrubbing is a federal crime. Yes you loose everything your license to do anything in the water and loose your boat to the Feds.The problem is money is their object not the long term effects on the whole eco system.
    Feel free to add comment, I have done my own personal studies. Its all about the money. Don’t be a whale scrubber!!!!

  2. At least we can take heart that someone is observing this lack of compliance with conservation measures. The tour companies must now know that this isn’t going unoticed–it’s a step in the right direction.

  3. Daniel, you bring up a good question.

    It’s not unusual for scientific studies to be published several years after data is collected. One of the reasons is that academic journals often have a backlog of other accepted papers, and also because once an article is submitted sometimes it has to be revised before being accepted. Of course, many scientists also find it hard to write about their results quickly, as they might tend to have other job responsibilities that demand their immediate attention.

  4. I wonder why the scientists just published their study, if the research was done in the summers of ’03 and ’04?

  5. It appears that whales are destined to suffer as a result of human greed – very sad.
    Let’s hope there’s an involuntary code set-up very soon.
    Perhaps, a website that highlights the worst offenders so whale watchers know which companies to avoid would be a good start…

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