Turning The Tide: Reducing Ship-Whale Collision Strikes

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Underwater tracking of whales and the public grading of ships on speed restriction conformity could reduce fatal collisions.

Threat Of Extinction 

Ship strikes are a leading cause of death for whales, with an estimated 20,000 killed by collisions annually. This is particularly concerning for sub-species already facing extinction, with intensive whaling already having reduced the number of some to the hundreds. This includes North Atlantic right whales, of which only around 360 remain.

Part of the problem is that shipping lanes coincide with North Atlantic right whales’ migratory route. With US shipping ports busier than ever, a result is a high number of collisions with the whales, which are dark in color and swim close to the surface. Conservation non-profit Oceana reported on several recent deaths in the calving season (November to May).

Turning Tides 

The tide needs to turn particularly for the US East Coast, which sees a disturbingly high number of whale deaths. The years 2018, 2019, and 2021 were some of the worst on record for collisions off the coast of California, with 10, 11, and 8 confirmed deaths, respectively.

These reported deaths are thought to represent only around 5%-17% of ship-strike mortalities, with most whales believed to sink when struck and killed. The actual annual toll in the area could be closer to 100.

The problem is set to worsen as global ocean traffic continues to rise – by an estimated 240% and upwards by 2050. Recommended speed restrictions have been put in place in an attempt to reduce fatalities, but, with 33% of vessels ignoring these recommendations in Southern California in 2023 and 30% in San Francisco, Rachel Rhodes of Whale Safe, a technology-based mapping and analysis tool designed to reduce ship strikes, warns that “we still have more work to do.”

The Solution 

Enacting a reduction in the number of collisions is not straightforward in practice, but Oceana campaign director Gib Brogan explains that it is in principle. “The answer is simple,” he says. “Ships need to slow down.”

However, convincing shipping vessels and companies to slow down has not been so simple. Brogan points out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Vessel Speed Rule was introduced in 2008, but says that: “Since then, the population [of North Atlantic right whales] has rapidly declined and shifted, making updates necessary.” He adds that “it’s clear voluntary speed limits don’t work.”

Maersk most recently received a B, telling Ship Technology: “To reduce the risk of whale strikes or disturbing breeding whales, Maersk follows all mandatory speed reduction schemes at sea and has also implemented voluntary schemes, adapting to the recommended measures.”

Hapag-Lloyd received a C. It tells Shipping Technology: “Our commitment to both mandatory regulations and voluntary measures is firm … we remain steadfast in our mission to protect marine life and promote responsible shipping practices.”

The Response 

Rhodes says that the tool has seen success, noting that the percentage of vessels abiding by the recommended limits had increased in Southern California from 46% in 2019 to 63% in 2023 and in San Francisco from 57% in to 70% between the same years. However, while Rhodes says the cooperation rate is trending in the right direction, she adds that Whale Safe would like to see it closer to 100%.

“We are continuing to do outreach with shipping companies, navigation software companies, and other major players in this space to try to make our data as accessible and easy to use as possible and to encourage more vessels to slow down,” she says. However, shipping companies need to be on board.

Maersk’s spokesperson would not comment on Whale Safe’s technology but tells Ship Technology: “As a company operating in a global industry, we find it important that solutions within this field are global and founded at the right regulatory bodies such as coast state authorities.”

Oceana’s Brogan hopes that regulation will become tighter and that the NOAA will increase enforcement, calling on Biden to approve the proposed updates to the Vessel Speed Rule. These would make current voluntary speed limits mandatory in dynamic slow zones, and change the rule to apply to boats 35ft or longer, rather than the current 65ft.

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Source: ShipTechnology