Help Whales and Sea Turtles from ship strikes!
Ships hitting whales and sea turtles
It’s like a hit and run death or injury to a human by a car, but in this case it’s happening to coastal wildlife.
Shipping traffic has increased along coastal United States (even as small as a jet ski), plus increasing speed of watercraft and the expanding sizes of cargo or tanker vessels often means death and injury for many slow moving whales and sea turtles who might be just resting, migrating or seeking a meal along the coast.
When a whale or sea turtle is hit by a ship or another vessel, these gentle creatures are likely to die or suffer a horrific injury. Ship collisions have been identified as a significant human cause of baleen whales (mysticete) mortality .
Whales and sea turtles are often unable to avoid ships, because many species move slowly in the water. Collisions often go unnoticed or unreported by the vessel’s captain, which means the deaths of whales and sea turtles are far higher than figures suggest. Sometimes injuries may not be life threatening right away, but a whale or sea turtle will die months or years later.
Whales and sea turtles spend most of their time underwater. So animals can be difficult to spot just below the surface, particularly at night or in rough ocean or choppy coastal waters.
An individual whale or sea turtle may also not see a vessel as a threat in urban waters where animals are often accustomed or familiar with boat noises around them, just like a person living on a busy city street. But life in urban waters can be deadly. Whales live in a world of sound, this is how many species of cetaceans find food and a mate, but large ships can cause a sound effect in the water called a ‘bow null’ effect. Load engine noise locate at the rear of the vessel is frequently masked or blocked by the front of the vessel. Many times a whale or sea turtle will not even hear an approaching vessel until it is too late.
Blunt trauma occurs when the vessel hull strikes a marine mammal or sea turtle straight on, resulting in bruising or broken bones or death.
Propeller strikes cause deep cuts in the tissue (or flesh) of whales and sea turtles. Sometimes this injury may result in a series of scars or death depending if main arteries or the spinal cord are cut.
What are some solutions?
Slow down! Just like vehicles around a school zone or on crowded city streets, boats and other vessels need to slow down in areas where there is a high probability of marine mammal or sea turtle activity. Research shows that boats and ships that operate at slower speeds (10kts or less) significantly reduce the risk of mortally wounding a whale if struck. Slowing down may also provide the animal with an increased reaction time to move away from the vessel. An example where this has worked well is in the St. Lawrence River estuary in Canada. Ship pilots significantly reduced their speed across the area, with 72 percent of the transits in 2014 occurring at speeds less than 13.6 miles per hour. Since 2014, there have been no or few whale strikes reported.
Better technology. Technology needs to be in place that warns a ship’s captain of a potential strike. In 2017, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, a team of marine biologists and technologists from universities and research labs around the United States, received a 1.5 million grant to develop a system that detects endangered blue whales using acoustic and thermal sensors and sends alerts to nearby boat captains. The goal is to reduce collisions between big ships and the world's largest animal in California's Santa Barbara Channel, a historical hotspot for encounters that frequently prove fatal for the whales. Additional funds need to be devoted to developing this technology on both coasts of the United States.
Better mapping. There needs to be a national strategy by the U.S. government to know exactly where marine mammals and sea turtles are most in danger, by mapping the risk of vessel strikes on a national scale. Reported strikes usually coincides with areas of heavy ship traffic and in areas of shipping traffic lanes. Hot spots can then be identified. To a certain point, this is currently being done by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) but uninfluenced and objective organizations in the United States should also be conducting this activity to make sure the data is correct.
A Warning System for Whales. In Cape Cod Bay, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has established a warning system for whales in the navigation corridor to Boston. Buoys are equipped with hydrophones capable to pick up the calls of whales. If a whale is detected, a signal is sent to ships so they can slow down in a particular sector. This activity should be expanded to other waters along the east coast.
Lookouts on ships. Ship captains can also post lookouts to scan waters for nearby marine mammal or sea turtle activity. If the lookout sees a spout, tail, or breaching whale, the person can tell the captain to slow down. Some whales may dive for 20 minutes or more while searching for food. If one whale is seen, many more could be close - maybe too close to a boat and its spinning propellers and powerful steel hull.
Ultimately it is up humans, not whales or sea turtles, to prevent strikes. These animals are doing what they have been doing for thousands or millions of years. There have never been so many human-built giant metal objects moving through the ocean at 20 to 30 knots until very recent times.
International Maritime Organization, “Report of the Marine Protection Committee,” Marine Environment Protection Committee, MEPC 59/24 (2009) & International Whaling Consortium, “Third progress report to the Conservation Committee of the ship strike working group,” IWC/60/CC3 presented to the IWC Conservation Committee, Santiago, Chile (2008). [Paper available from the Office of the J. Cetacean Res. Manage.]