Monday, November 16, 2009

Wareham scientist to get medal for aiding whales
November 16, 2009 12:00 AM

"WAREHAM — Think of someone powerful enough to move a shipping lane: to alter the path of behemoth tankers and freighters coming into Boston from Africa, Canada and South America, representing an international industry.

You are probably thinking of someone with serious political or legal clout — or both.

But in a side street in East Wareham, in a historic part of town near the Agawam River, another kind of person has been at work on that lane to prevent ships from striking whales: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary scientist and research coordinator David Wiley.

On Thursday, Wiley, 56, will receive the U.S. Commerce Department's highest award for distinguished service, the Gold Medal. The award recognizes his leadership in ground-breaking research, including the relocation in July 2007 of a 5-mile-wide shipping lane within the sanctuary — using more subtle skills, such as scientific acumen, an understanding of human nature, the patience to bring doubters along with logical arguments, and even a bit of old-fashioned pleasantry.

And, for the record, the width of the lane was reduced to 4 miles, Wiley said.

"He can understand all sides of an issue," said Mason Weinrich, executive director of the Whale Center of New England, who worked directly with Wiley on the shipping lane issue. "He has a good analyst mind, and he's a super nice person. If he asks you for something, it's hard to say no, because you know something's behind it."

That's lucky for the whales.

The sanctuary is an 842-square-mile stretch of ocean and underwater environment between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, where marine mammals feed seasonally. The sanctuary also is home to 30 species of seabirds, more than 60 species of fish and hundreds of marine invertebrates and plants.

But the sanctuary also is the prime crossing ground for ships coming into Boston. They make about 3,400 trips across the sanctuary waters each year. The heaviest traffic comes from points south, through a designated shipping lane off the coast of Cape Cod, Wiley said.

Before the move of the lane in 2007, there were one or two reported ship strikes each year in the sanctuary area and likely a few more that went unreported, Wiley said. Which was too many, he said. The whales are humpbacks, fin whales and, the most endangered, North American right whales, he said.

To try to reduce the strikes, Wiley and his staff studied whale distribution data from whale-watch boats working in the sanctuary, to map out where the whales are generally swimming. Then they studied ship locations based on on-board tracking monitors. From that, Wiley and his staff identified an "ecological hole," an area the whales seem to avoid and where the ships could potentially go.

To persuade the shippers, Wiley went further, explaining through an analysis of ocean currents and the ocean floor why the whales seemed to congregate in certain areas.

Then, he drove from the sanctuary office in Scituate once a month for about six months in 2004 and 2005 to convince the shippers — with an array of options on a PowerPoint presentation — to move their lane: to a more dog-legged entry across the sanctuary water, several miles northeast of the existing lane. It add anywhere from nine to 22 minutes to the trip, depending on the ships' speed, Wiley said.

"He took a powerful initiative to engage a problem that has been troubling us — we who work with whales — for a long time," said Charles Mayo, director of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies right whale habitat studies.

Moving the shipping lane will not eliminate ship strikes, Wiley said, but the risk has been reduced by 81 percent. It will take a few years to see how many strikes are actually eliminated. But he was characteristically low-key, crediting federal officials and a handful of nonprofit groups for their help, and mentioning other issues that still need to be addressed.

"It's no more complex than any of it," Wiley said."

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