Fatal collisions between shipping vessels and large whales
A Worrying Development
Sometime in May, a blue whale washed up on a Marin County beach after being hit by a ship, leaving it with 10 broken ribs, a badly fractured spine, and signs of skull trauma, as reported by the Marine Mammal Center.
Later in June, a boat was caught on camera striking with a humpback whale in the San Francisco Bay. Two weeks later, a humpback was seen barely evading an oncoming sailboat near the Golden Gate Bridge.
These recent incidents all made headlines, but many more whale deaths go completely unnoticed.
Cargo ships are so large that crews often have no idea they struck a whale unless they see a carcass on arriving the port. Most container ships are more than 1,000 feet long.
Vessel strikes have become one of the leading human-related causes of whale deaths in the past 10 years, with over 60 blue, gray, fin, and humpback whales with signs of ship strikes found dead in California, Oregon and Washington. Many go unreported.
Researchers and scientists are unsure why ship strikes have increased. While fluctuation in numbers is expected since stranding records depend on observed incidents, last year’s body count indicates the issue requires attention. Experts have agreed that reported deaths stands for just a fraction of ship-strike mortalities.
A good number of them usually sink when they get hit. If the water is cold and deep enough, they are never seen on the surface again.
It is estimated that less than 17 percent of whales that are fatally struck by vessels ever surface or wash to shore. Furthermore, ships that strike whales often do so without anyone on board knowing.
There have been cases when ships come into port with the body of a whale draped over the bulbous bow and the vessel captain having no idea how it got there.
The undocumented losses are essential since they reduce a key number used to ascertain if whales need further protection, undercutting arguments for regulatory measures.
The way forward
Regulations limiting the speed of large ships has been effective in reducing right whale mortalities. In 2008, the “Ship Strike” rule was established by the NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to protect right whales, which are among the world’s most endangered whale species. The policy led to relocations in shipping lanes and has mandated vessels to slow down in specific areas during periods of peak right whale activity.
When it comes to speed, lower ships have been shown to reduce the likelihood of a ship-whale encounter and the chances of a lethal collision. The number of right whale deaths has decreased since the rule was created.
Apart from checking speed, there are other large whale conservation methods like separating ships from whales by rerouting shipping lanes, curbing shipping activities when whales are most active and the use of technologies to help ships detect and avoid whales.
Members of the shipping industry have always maintained it has never been their intention to harm whales.
The increase in whale mortalities has led NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to begin working with the shipping industry, government agencies and nonprofit organizations to reduce ship collisions.
Slowing down protect whales and is beneficial for human lungs as well. Lower speeds reduce air pollution emissions such as nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog.
In 2019, international strikes with commercial vessels have become a real and growing threat to particular whale populations. There are lots of grounds to be covered in order to reduce that threat in the face of increased shipping traffic.
Between 2007 and 2016, more than 1,200 whale and vessel collisions were accounted for in the International Whaling Commission’s global ship strike database.
Conservationists have the hopes that someday soon policies can exemplify how to protect whales in heavily trafficked areas. Meanwhile, coastal waters are not safe.
Whales will become extinct in 25 years, scientists say, and Juneau whale watching, a popular tour activity will be diminished.