Saving Large Whales From Ship Strike

ORCA is working to prevent one of the main threats to large whales in the North East Atlantic – the risk of being hit by ships.

The problem

Unfortunately, large whales are hit and killed by ships globally. One of the busiest shipping routes in the world lies on the western edge of the Bay of Biscay in the North East Atlantic; container vessels, tankers and bulk carriers all move goods from northern Europe to the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa.  Couple this with high densities of large whales; the risk of whale strike is inevitably going to be high.

No one knows how many whales are killed each year in the Bay of Biscay.  The Bay is a very large expanse of deep water and very few carcasses are washed up on shore.  We are reliant on ships reporting a strike or near miss.  Many large ships are unaware that they have hit a whale and only discover this when they arrive in port with it draped over their bulbous bow. Shipping density in the Bay of Biscay is as high if not higher than in the Mediterranean, therefore it can be inferred that there will be at least a comparable risk of ship strikes in these areas.  This suggestion is supported by further scientific research, which identified the Bay of Biscay and Southwest Approaches as areas of high risk of fatal ship strike.

Ship strikes in Bay of Biscay
ORCA reducing ship strikes

What ORCA is doing

In November 2011, ORCA and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) came together to collaborate on a 6 month project focusing on reducing ship strikes of large whales in the Bay of Biscay. With WSPA’s funding and understanding of animal welfare and ORCA’s scientific knowledge of the Bay of Biscay, a great partnership was created to develop an innovative solutions based workshop in April 2012. We invited representatives from industry, academia and charities to work together to identify pragmatic and creative solutions to a long-standing issue. 

In 2017 ORCA ran an innovative pilot project with a postgraduate student from Nottingham Trent University to continue this. The work investigated the occurrence of fin whales close to large vessels, and recorded the behaviour of the animals. We have continued this, adopting an improved methodology in 2018, and now conduct this innovative research throughout the season when whales are present in our neighbouring waters.

In 2019 James Robbins began a PHD at the University of Portmouth, researching the threat of ship strike to large whales. ORCA’s research will be used to help progress knowledge about occurrence, behavioral impact, areas of risk and mitigation. The PhD will be supervised by Dr Sarah Marley, Professor Alex Ford and ORCA’s Head of Science and Conservation, Lucy Babey. 

We hope to discover how bad the problem is, and provide a solution to ships crews and policy makers to implement solutions in the Bay of Biscay, and beyond.

Worldwide Marine Mammal Conference 2019

ORCA representatives will be showcsing our findings at the Worldwide Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona in December 2019.

The study investigated the impact that an approaching large vessel has on fin whale behaviour. The results have been submitted to a scientific journal for publication, and will be outlined fully soon; however for now the poster shared in Barcelona with the marine mammal community can be viewed below.

Related resources

Ship-Strike Workshop Report

Workshop report on how to identfy a clear way forwards to address the risks of ship strike on large whales within the Bay of Biscay.

Ship Strike Toolkit

A practical information guide for shipping on large whales of the Bay of Biscay and how to reduce whale strike risk.