By Douglas Moser , Staff writer
One of the companies building a liquefied natural gas terminal off Gloucester is paying for a new system that will help detect whales and avoid strikes by its massive tankers.
Environmentalists and marine biologists hope it could dramatically reduce the number of whales killed by vessel strikes. Two whales that washed up dead on Cape Ann shores this summer died as a result of being hit by large vessels, officials from the New England Aquarium determined.
Six buoys, which each have a microphone tied to it 50 feet below the surface and an antenna to transmit data and sound, surround the construction site of one liquefied natural gas terminal 13 miles southeast of Gloucester. Excelerate Energy LLC, based in The Woodlands, Texas, is building the Northeast Gateway Energy Bridge and paid for the whale monitoring system as part of a mitigation package the state ordered when approving the terminals.
The buoys will help monitor whales in the main shipping route from the LNG site to Boston.
"A company wanted to build these (LNG terminals) a mile away from a marine sanctuary, and we wanted to find ways to mitigate their impact," said Leila Hatch, a regional coordinator for marine bioacoustics with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Both Excelerate's and Suez North America's LNG terminals are close to the western border of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an area of high whale traffic, and the massive tankers carrying supercooled liquefied natural gas will cross through part of the sanctuary to get to the buoy system.
The system, designed by biologists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., was originally intended for research and has been deployed to monitor whale activity from Cape Cod Bay all the way up to the Bay of Fundy, the body of water that separates Nova Scotia from New Brunswick.
Christopher Clark, the director of the bioacoustic research program at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology who helped develop and test the system earlier this decade, said the system works by listening for whale calls. Because sound travels better through water than through air, the microphones can detect sound emanating from a source miles away.
Computers on the buoy can recognize whale calls, and once one is detected, the computer sends a signal to receivers at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, which forward messages to researchers' cell phones.
"When I get that message that says, 'You've got whales,' I can get on my laptop, I can see the data, scan it, listen and see whether it's a right whale," Clark said.
North Atlantic right whales are of particular concern because their numbers are so depleted biologists and researchers believe a handful more vessel strikes could doom the species.
The public will have access to the listening system this fall on Cornell's Web page.
Clark said the system, which has been in place since May, has not detected any right whales yet. Several humpback whales have been detected, though they are usually scarce in this area until after Labor Day. The right whales go north to stay in cooler waters until the fall and then head south again.
"It's been quiet, but in a couple months, the chatter will start," he said.
When Cornell biologists learn of whales in the area near the LNG buoys or in the shipping lanes, they contact the Coast Guard, which relays the information to LNG tankers.
Hatch said the notices are only going to LNG tankers, which will be some of the largest vessels using the Boston Harbor shipping lane even though they will represent a tiny fraction of the traffic.
"The idea is that we can broaden this to general ship traffic if that's where they decide to go with it," Hatch said.
All tugboats and vessels more than 300 gross tons or carrying more than 165 passengers are required to use the Coast Guard's information.
Excelerate paid $6.5 million for the passive acoustic buoy system as part of a $23 million mitigation packaged ordered by Secretary of Environmental Affairs Robert Golledge Jr. on Dec. 1 as a condition of state approval of the project. Excelerate has begun construction of its LNG system, which will tie into the existing underwater Hubline pipe that runs from Salem to Quincy and expects to receive its first delivery of LNG this December.
Suez, which is planning to begin operation at the end of 2009, will begin payment of most of its mitigation obligations when construction starts in the summer of that year.
Douglas Pizzi, a spokesman for Excelerate, said that while LNG ships will represent a small increase in traffic, it can be used for all vessels using Massachusetts Bay.
"The bottom line is the mitigation for this part of the project is going far above what the impact of the project will be," he said.
Clark said he is encouraged about the project after working with Excelerate.
"I'm actually very pleased at how proactive they've been," he said. "It's been a transparent process, and they said from the beginning they wanted the information available to the public."
Excelerate also pledged to slow its vessels to 3 to 4 knots when the massive tankers are traveling out of the shipping lane to tie up at the buoys to unload.
On July 1, the shipping lane into Boston Harbor was shifted several nautical miles in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of a vessel striking a whale.
The move will add 3.75 miles to the overall distance of the shipping lane and 10 to 22 minutes to overall travel time one way, according to the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
According to the Coast Guard and NOAA, there are approximately 3,500 ship transits in Stellwagen every year, with the majority of them using the shipping lanes. The shift rotated the east-west leg of the lanes by 12 degrees to the north and lengthened the north-south lane to account for the adjustment. The lanes were narrowed by a half mile, to 1.5 miles each.