Thousands Of Whales Are Killed by Ship Strikes Each Year

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Large numbers of cetaceans are dying from lethal collisions with vessels, even in protected areas. Now science may provide the means to protect them, reports The Guardian.


A collision with a vessel is one of the main threats to whales and if the whale does not die on impact, it is usually only a question of time. In Moon’s case, Wray knows she made the 3,000 mile migration to Hawaii. “We’re actually hoping that she has passed,” says Wray. She has not been seen since December.

With potentially thousands of whales hit every year, and with the number of ships rapidly increasing across the globe, the problem is only getting worse. But as the recent UN high seas treaty shows, there is increasing political will to protect the world’s oceans and their inhabitants. The question is whether it is even possible to save the whales from dying at the bows of ships. New technology suggests yes – but it’s going to take all hands on deck.

Commercial whaling, which killed 3m whales in the 20th century, was banned in most countries in the mid-1980s. But since then, another threat has continued to grow: ocean traffic. Worldwide ship numbers quadrupled between 1992 and 2012 and while it is driven by increased traffic in Asia it is happening everywhere.

For example, along western Europe, the density of ships and boats increased by more than a third in the mid-2010s, according to a recent paper. “Cargo boats, fishing boats, ferries… Vessel traffic is increasing across the whole spectrum,” says Sarah Marley from Scotland’s Rural College, who led the work. That’s true even within protected areas, for example around the Inner Hebrides, which is home to a third of Scotland’s harbour porpoises and where traffic rose by over 400%.

Preventive measure

In an effort to increase compliance with the speed guidance, Steffen and her colleagues started the Whale Safe project in 2020, based on the idea that if crews were more aware of whales, they might be more mindful. Consequently, they track the whales – combining satellite information, sightings from whale-watchers and data from acoustics buoys that listen for whale calls underwater – to compute a “whale presence rating”.

This is sent to incoming ships to remind captains to slow down and it appears to be working; in 2019, 46% of ships followed the guidelines and by 2022 it was 61.5%. “We really want to make sure that these numbers are going the right way and hopefully faster,” says Steffen. But even if all ships did comply, not everyone is convinced it is going to be enough.

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Source: The Guardian


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