2024 2024: UMassD computer science students help save the North Atlantic right whale

2024 2024: UMassD computer science students help save the North Atlantic right whale
UMassD computer science students help save the North Atlantic right whale

In collaboration with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, UMass Dartmouth students developed an educational video game to help protect endangered animals.

a North Atlantic right whale

Computer science students Frank Wenner '24, '25 and Aidan Theobald '26 are using gamification to help endangered whales while preserving the fishing industry. Wenner and Theobald recently partnered with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a global nonprofit whose North American office is based in Plymouth, MA, to develop an educational video game. The game highlights a new type of fishing gear that significantly reduces the risk of accidentally entangling right whales while allowing economically essential fishing communities to thrive. 

In March 2024, NOAA Fisheries declared that the North Atlantic right whale was close to extinction, with fewer than 360 remaining in the wild. One of the biggest threats to marine mammals is accidental entanglement in fishing gear. Among the WDC's stated goals is to reduce the number of whales and dolphins accidentally killed and injured through entanglement in fishing gear. To that end, they are working as part of a collaborative group to test on-demand fishing gear that uses electronic signals rather than static buoy lines to help fishers retrieve their traps. This served as the inspiration for Wenner and Theobald's game, "On-Demand Fishing." 

"WDC is always looking to optimize how we connect with the public and share information. Gamification is another tool to do that," said WDC Education Department Chair Jen Kelly. 

Shown in this screenshot of the video game
Caption: Wenner and Theobald's game "On-Demand Fishing" allows users to play from the point of view of a North Atlantic right whale and a lobster fisher.

Users can play from the point of view of a whale and the point of view of a lobster boat crew, allowing the user to see the conservation issue from both perspectives. Fishing gear entanglements not only injure and kill whales, but they also result in the loss of expensive equipment and the closures of fishing grounds. Taking both points of view helps users understand the need for solutions that work for both humans and whales. 

The video game will be deployed as part of a WDC educational program to teach participants about North Atlantic right whales and the threats they face; the history of lobster fishing and the state of the industry today; and some of the solutions available for protecting both whales and fishers, like on-demand fishing gear. 

"Game design is what originally got me into computer programming," said Wenner. "I also liked the idea of making a game for a good cause and something that can be used for education. I gained valuable experience in communicating ideas and plans with clients. I also improved my game development skills by learning Unity. Most importantly, I was able to meet fantastic people, and work on a project with a great cause." 

"We are thrilled with the work the UMassD students completed, and we are looking forward to continuing this partnership in the future," Kelly said.  

The video game created by Wenner and Theobald will serve as a prototype for next year's engineering capstone students to improve upon and develop further.