How shipping affects whales?

There has been an increased volume of shipping traffic in recent years and unfortunately, the busiest shipping routes overlap with areas used by whales for feeding, breeding, playing and resting. At least 80 large whales are struck by vessels each year – and those are the strikes that are reported. Many large vessels hit smaller whales without even realising, leaving the whales badly injured and facing imminent death. Shipping strikes are one of the main causes of death to endangered species of whales.

The World Wildlife Fund explains –

‘Shipping traffic increased 300% between1992 and 2013, and continues to increase at a rate of 2-3% per year. Ships that keep growing in size and speed now move 10.3 billion tons of goods around the globe each year. Ship-based travel has also escalated, with fast-passenger ferries racing through coastal areas also used by whales and dolphins.

The problems of whale strikes were first recorded in the late 1800s and whilst they are not new, the frequency has definitely increased dramatically in the last 50 years.  The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the most endangered species with just 500 adults left. Unfortunately, they live in the particularly busy shipping lanes between the east coast of the United States and Canada. Being hit by shipping is one of the two greatest threats to the survival of the species. Between 1970 – 1989, 20% of the bodies of this species showed that they had died from severe physical injuries – caused by ships. In recent years, the number of whale strikes has been dramatically reduced by 80-90% and this has been achieved by creating shipping lanes and more importantly, by reducing the speed limit to 10 knots. 

As well as the North Atlantic Right the other whale species that are frequently struck are fin whales, humpbacks, sperm and grey. The injuries the whales suffer include fractured jaws, broken bones, vertebrae and deep propeller wounds which lead to infection.

Many people ask, why do ships hit whales? Certainly, it can be difficult to spot a whale and even if the skipper does, trying to change course drastically in a short distance proves impossible. Whales are sometimes oblivious of the approaching danger too because of the ‘bow null effect’. As the ship moves forward, there is an area in front of its bow where the noise of its engines is blocked. Whales in this area will not hear the warning sound of the ship’s engines in time. Unfortunately, large vessels traveling at speed are the greatest danger.

The noise levels caused by shipping have also increased at an alarming rate – doubling every decade for the past 50 years. Unfortunately, much of the noise, including ships’ propellers, military sonar and the explosives used for gas and oil exploration, are between 20-200 hertz – exactly the same frequency range as whales.

Whales have a very good sense of hearing and importantly, it is the way that they communicate. When marine noise levels are too great, the whales’ navigational skills are upset and they can become disorientated. sadly, often one whale gets isolated from the rest of the group. Prolonged exposure to excessive noise can permanently injure a whale’s hearing.

Often, whales will try and avoid areas where there is excessive noise and this can be dangerous if it is their feeding ground and particularly if they have a calf.  Both mother and calf can become malnourished very quickly and this can put their lives in danger.

Unfortunately, not many of the global shipping companies are thinking about ways to protect whales as they are under considerable pressure from their customers to deliver goods quickly and cheaply so for the shipping companies, any ideas that could impact their cost effectiveness fall ‘on deaf ears’.

The problem is being addressed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which is trying to find an effective way to reduce the number of whale strikes by ships. It is currently analysing the data of all known strikes to identify the high risk areas so that new measures van be put in place such as speed limits and defined shipping lanes.

There are some other excellent initiatives currently taking place. WWF France is currently developing a system called REPCET® in the Pelagos sanctuary which will ensure shipping is given accurate notification of whale locations. Pelagos is the largest marine sanctuary in the Mediterranean and stretches between France, Monaco, Italy and Sicily. REPCET® is an onboard computer system that has been developed during the past ten years by shipping companies, environmental agencies and engineers. REPCET® has been installed in 39 vessels and all the crew members have been trained on how to use the system. The system monitors the position of all whales in the Pelagos area so that the ship’s crew can avoid striking the mammal. REPCET® is also importantly, raising awareness of the danger shipping is to the whale population.

Another promising project is being organised by WWF Peru and WWF Panama in coordination with the Smithsonian Institute. The project is trying to raise awareness of the risk posed by shipping lanes to whales and has created a ‘safe corridor’ for the migrating whales.

Hopefully, very shortly, the most effective ways of ensuring the safety of whales can be ‘rolled out’ in all the ‘high risk’ areas ensuring that good health of the different species is enhanced and that there numbers start to increase, so their future no longer lies in the balance…