Several whale populations are currently threatened by collisions with large ships in different places in the world. The most emblematic is perhaps the Northern Atlantic Right Whale, for which ships strikes along with entanglement in fishing gear may drive this species to extinction.
In the Mediterranean Sea, ship strikes are considered one of the main causes of mortality for fin whales and sperm whales. Indeed, for only 0.8% of the global ocean surface, the Mediterranean hosts 25% of world shipping, including 33% of world tanker traffic. As a result, it is estimated that between 7 and 33 fin whales could be killed each year by collisions only.
To reduce the risk of ship strikes, scientists, shipping companies and engineers have joined forces to create the REPCET system (www.repcet.com). REPCET (REal-time Plotting of CETaceans) is a collaborative software that allows equipped vessels to communicate the individual positions of large cetaceans that they spot on their way to each other in real-time thanks to a satellite communication.
In addition to accurately positioning the whale sightings, the system calculates and displays associated risk zones. These shaded, evolving ring-shaped areas are a function of the ethology of the species in the sector concerned, and correspond to the risk of encountering the initially detected animal. The display is intuitive, allowing the level of risk within the mapped zone to be easily and quickly understood.
Customizable alarms allow crew members to anticipate potential encounters, thus avoiding the necessity of continuous monitoring of the mapping screen. All the observations are also stored on a shore-based server and available to the scientific community.
In addition to sending cetacean positions, it is also possible for crew members to report drifting objects that could be a threat to navigation to other ships and the French Mediterranean MRCC. Moreover, recent developments allowed the addition of an automatic ship strike and near-miss report in case of such an event. The objective is to collect as much information as possible on ship strike events in order to feed the International Whaling Commission Ship Strike Database (www.iwc.int/ship-strikes).
The collaborative nature of the system means it relies on the density of maritime traffic. Other vessels are also welcome to contribute voluntarily to the system by reporting cetacean sightings, especially any scientists at sea or whale-watching operators. For that purpose, a REPCET smartphone app is being developed. Primarily designed for whale-watching operators, this app allows to send observations but not to receive those from other contributors.
Thanks to its satellite communication, REPCET has a worldwide coverage and could potentially be used anywhere on the planet. At the moment, it is being deployed in the waters of the Pelagos Sanctuary, a 87,500-sqkm MPA created by France, Monaco and Italy in 2002 for the preservation of Mediterranean marine mammals and their habitat. Ten commercial ships and one private sailing boat used for research purposes are equipped with REPCET at the moment. However, this is still not enough for the system to be completely efficient. Several collaboration projects are therefore underway to increase the number of participants and spread the system in the strait of Gibraltar and the Bay of Biscay. We have good hopes that several other commercial ships will join the network, thus participating in the conservation of these majestic animals, one of the best examples of the common heritage we need to preserve and pass down to our children.