Back to News

The Allen Institute for AI Receives $1.48 Million Grant to Help in Safeguarding North Atlantic Right Whales with EarthRanger

Empowering conservation through innovative tech and collaboration

November 24, 2021 — Slalom (#1245): An Army Corps of Engineers-funded aerial survey team with Clearwater Marine Aquarium staff sighted the first identified mother-calf pair of the right whale calving season on November 24, 2021. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, taken under NOAA permit #20556–01.

With an estimated population of only 360 remaining, the North Atlantic right whale teeters on the edge of extinction largely due to human-induced impacts. Among these, vessel collisions pose a significant threat, but entanglement in fishing gear emerges as one of the gravest dangers. Since 2017, 79 instances of entanglement have been recorded, leading researchers to conclude that almost every surviving North Atlantic right whale bears scars from such encounters with fishing rope. 

In response to this critical challenge facing the species, the Allen Institute for AI (AI2) – which operates and supports EarthRanger – has been selected for a grant of $1.48 million by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), awarded through the New England Gear Innovation Fund (NEGIF) program. This program, made possible through funding provided by Congress in the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, is a partnership between NFWF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with additional support from Shell USA. The funding for AI2 will bolster the ongoing efforts of EarthRanger in safeguarding and conserving the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Advances in innovative fishing gear, particularly in on-demand fishing gear (also known as ropeless or buoy-less gear), decrease the risk of gear entanglement for North Atlantic right whales by eliminating the need for fishers to tether buoys and ropes to crab and lobster traps sitting on the ocean floor. These physical buoys serve dual purposes. They allow fishers to haul traps back onto boats and indicate the precise location of existing traps. Manufacturers have made significant progress addressing the first issue by implementing various remote triggering mechanisms, typically acoustic signals. However, the latter remains an unresolved challenge. For this innovative solution to flourish and achieve broad acceptance, fishers, enforcement agencies, and nearby vessels need to know whether or not the gear is deployed beneath them.

To address this problem, EarthRanger will use the NFWF and NOAA grant to develop more features needed to use on-demand fishing effectively. Building off a successful trial with NOAA and five gear manufacturers in 2022, EarthRanger’s mobile app will be updated to allow for marking, sharing, and aggregating location data of on-demand fishing gear. Additionally, offline capabilities will be integrated, ensuring that users can access and utilize the app's features even in remote areas without internet connectivity. EarthRanger will also introduce a custom map feature, extending existing nautical maps to highlight critical information like fisheries and seasonal management areas. This addition will equip fishers with detailed insights for making informed decisions at sea. 

A depiction of how EarthRanger will support the adoption of on-demand fishing gear.

“Sustainable conservation solutions require addressing the needs and challenges faced by not only wildlife but also the people who live and work in their vicinity,” said Jes Lefcourt, Director of EarthRanger at AI2. “Working closely with fishers as well as local and national government agencies, this funding will enable us to address some of the largest coordination issues that are preventing the wide-scale adoption of on-demand fishing gear. These tools will enable the protection of critically endangered species like the right whale while also protecting fishers’ businesses and livelihoods.” 

EarthRanger is a free platform that collects, integrates, and displays all available data to provide one unified view of an area, whether on land or at sea. The platform is widely used across terrestrial environments across regions to support conservationists in protecting wildlife – including elephants, rhinos, and big cats, among other species – from threats through real-time monitoring and data. 

The platform’s ability and experience in integrating over 100 leading hardware, devices, data services, and software makes it uniquely suited to help on-demand fishing adoption. EarthRanger will allow users to observe the exact locations of on-demand gear deployments nearby, regardless of the manufacturer or owner. Armed with these capabilities, fishing and regulatory vessels will be able to see gear deployed in their immediate vicinity, aiding in more effectively addressing equipment entanglement or other potential issues. And with data privacy at the forefront, EarthRanger will provide different levels of information depending on the user, protecting the personal information and trade secrets of fishers.

While a fisher might see only a spotlight view of gear, this view in EarthRanger shows an authorized regulator a view of all gear in a monitored area. 

This project will be carried out over the next two years and will track tangible milestones to ensure the effective integration of on-demand fishing equipment solutions and the implementation of the application among fisheries and regulatory agencies. 

To learn more about EarthRanger and its work with conservationist organizations, visit our technology and partner pages. To learn more about the project and other NEGIF grants, visit