University of Florida (UF) researchers are embarking on a two-year study that is the first attempt to map boating traffic patterns in the northeast Florida area.
The project came about because one of the world’s most endangered whale species head south towards Georgia and Florida to give birth, facing threats from fishing and commercial boat traffic.
Somewhere between 325 and 400 whales remain of the species that was hunted nearly to extinction by 18th and 19th-century whalers.
The UF researchers, Bob Swett and Charles Sidman, will use GIS technology to better understand boat travel patterns off the coasts of St. Johns, Duval and Nassau counties. The work will begin with surveys of boaters about their usual routes and seasonal boating habits.
“Once you have the patterns, you can start comparing them to the known sightings of right whales—to find the hotspots, if you will,” said Sidman.
The researchers will also take to the air to log positions and characteristics of recreational boats.
Then, all of the information will become part of a graphic representation that will help managers and policy-makers understand what is happening in certain waterways, better focus outreach efforts and more accurately assess the effects of future marine-related projects on protected species.
The whales typically arrive off the Florida-Georgia coast in December and stay until early spring, said Barb Zoodsma, a biologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is funding the $246,000 study.
Awareness among recreational boaters about whales is not as high as it could be, she said, and the whales are more frequently seen bearing scars from collisions with boat-engine propellers than ever before.
“From what captains have described to me, the impact is so tremendous that at first they thought they’d hit a large container that had fallen off a ship,” she said. “So it’s not just about protecting the whales, it’s a boater safety issue, too.”