Chris Clarke and the Ornithology Lab at Cornell University have an application for bioacoustics: right whale detection in shipping lanes. Right whales often make contact calls, called “up-calls”, and a series of ten deployed buoys with hydrophones and communications gear can pick up these calls for right whales within five miles of a listening buoy. Onboard processing does a first pass at picking out a “top ten” list of possible right whale calls, and those are uploaded to the Cornell Ornithology Lab for further processing. The system is computer-assisted rather than computer-automated, meaning that the computer processing narrows the things that would require a human decision, but it relies upon humans to make a final determination of whether a right whale call was present. If that is the case, the buoy is marked as having one or more right whales in the vicinity, and is tagged as having an “alert” status. This is reflected on a website that ship captains can access and, hopefully, reduce their speed while traversing areas where right whales have been detected. Right whales move slowly, travel near the surface, and ship strikes remain a major source of mortality for right whales. By highlighting where right whales are, Clarke hopes that responsible captains will take steps to reduce ship speed and post lookouts.
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