The devastating impact of ship strike

31st Oct 2013

Ship strike is one of the biggest dangers for whale populations across the world. Collisions with ocean vessels can cause horrific injuries and death for marine mammals. Since adult whales spend the vast majority of their time within 12m of the sea surface, they are particularly vulnerable to impact from boats and ships.

Estimates into the number of animals affected vary widely. One of the problems is that some animals die instantly, some are injured but die a slow death later, but it is believed only around 10% of those affected end up washed onto beaches. The International Whaling Commission has set up a standardised database to try and create a more accurate picture of the problem across the world.

While globally fin whales are the most commonly reported victim of ship strike, many other species have been affected. For some species like the North Atlantic right whale, which frequents the busy shipping routes off the east coast of America, collisions are having a catastrophic impact on population levels. Between 1970 and 2007 it is thought that ships killed more than a third of the right whales reported dead. The concern was that without mitigation, ship strike could have caused their extinction.

What is being done?

Last year ORCA held a workshop to highlight the issue of ship strike in the Bay of Biscay. They brought together key players in the shipping industry, campaign organisations and researchers to discuss realistic action that could be taken to reduce the number of whale deaths. As well as ideas to improve awareness among ship crews, discussions focussed on high tech solutions. All parties felt early warning systems and acoustic deterrents would be helpful in addressing the issue. The findings of the workshop were shared with the International Whaling Commission and ASCOBANS.

ORCA’s workshop participants felt speed reduction was not practical for all types of vessel. However, various countries around the world are demanding ships slow-down in order to reduce the risk of ship strike. Last month, the ports of Auckland in the north of New Zealand became the latest to implement such guidelines. They are hoping to stop the regular ship strike deaths of bryde’s whales in the Hauraki Gulf.

The US coast guard has implemented narrower, longer shipping channels in San Fransisco, Long Beach and Los Angeles to reduce the problem. Also in the States, last month a District Court Judge found the National Marine Fisheries Service had failed to protect whales, dolphins, seals and other sea mammals from Navy exercises along the California coast. The agency must now reconsider its permits and question whether endangered species legislation has been breached.

These actions have been welcomed by campaigners who point out that measures to prevent ship strike will improve human safety levels too.

Get involved

• Help ORCA identify and protect critical whale and dolphin habitats by volunteering on a marine mammal survey

• Get the app. If you are planning a trip to San Francisco get a Whale Spotter app. Your sightings may influence shipping routes, find out more about Point Blue’s app here

• A Blue Whale Festival is being planned 1-8 December in Sri Lanka as an awareness raising exercise to promote responsible boat use and water sports.

• Find out about the International Whaling Commission global ship strike database

• Discover more about right whale research

• Read all about ASCOBANS and their work to save Europe’s small whales, dolphins and porpoise

• Read the summary of ORCA’s ship strike workshop, email for your copy

Article by Mary Anna Wright