COMMENTARY | Strategy Needed to Avert Whale Mortality

Tim Whitehouse

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Strategy Needed to Avert Whale Mortality

This commentary was originally published in the Spring 2023 edition of PEEReview.

PHOTO | NOAA/John Calambokidis/Cascadia

Collisions between whales and ships are on the rise in US waters, causing considerable loss to whale populations. However, a coherent and comprehensive nationwide strategy for avoiding ship strikes is sadly lacking. PEER now leads the charge for the creation of Whale Safety Zones in territorial waters what would reduce this carnage dramatically.

At least three large whale species in U.S. waters are on the brink of extinction, with more listed as endangered. This could potentially become the planet’s first large whale species extinction in recorded history.

Preventable ship strikes are the leading cause of death for many of these species. Even as the number of collision victims grows, the true extent of whale mortality is obscured, since a large number of carcasses sink to the ocean floor and go undetected.

Larger, Faster Ships Are the Culprit

Increasingly, cargo is transported by larger ships traveling at higher speeds through coastal waters that are prime whale habitats. Since 2006, the size of the largest container ships has more than doubled. With each year, ship size is projected to continue to grow.

At the same time, global trade continues expanding almost exponentially, exacerbating ship traffic in the world’s oceans. Currently, close to four times as many ships roam the seas compared to only three decades ago.

With increased ship congestion on a number of US sea routes, impacts on whale habitats from massive vessels can only worsen. For instance, the Southern California shipping lanes to San Francisco which include the two busiest hubs in California, not surprisingly, are also the two hotspots for whale mortality from ship collisions.

Many of today’s ships are so large that whale strikes go undetected. Both ship size as well as cargo volume are projected to continue their upward spiral. As ship size has grown, so have ship speeds, now averaging between 20 to 25 knots. Larger cargo ships moving at greater speeds inevitably increase the likelihood of collisions with whales.

“Ship strikes are already the leading cause of whale mortality in U.S. waters, and the threat is growing,” stated Rick Steiner, a marine ecologist and Chair of PEER’s Board of Directors, noting that a large ship creates a “bow null effect” that blocks engine noise by the bow, creating a quiet zone in front of the vessel, which impedes from recognizing the pending threat. “Simply put, many of our busiest coastal shipping routes are death traps for whales.”

New Hazards in Alaskan Waters

Alaskan waters today host one of the largest and most diverse populations of whales on the planet. As the climate changes and vessel traffic increases, they will be increasingly vulnerable to ship strikes. Warmer temperatures and retreating sea ice are creating a new navigable ocean in these waters, with the Arctic Ocean projected to become ice-free for half of the year by the end of this century.

Safety Zones

To meet this challenge, our rulemaking petition urges the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to establish Whales Safety Zones for all large ships entering or leaving U.S. ports, or transiting marine sanctuaries and monuments. While in these Whales Safety Zones, ships must reduce their speed and adopt other whale avoidance measures, which studies show sharply reduce whale mortality.

Currently, collision avoidance measures are mostly voluntary, so shippers seeking to cut shipping time simply ignore them.

“Only mandatory whale safety measures will stem the rising tide of preventable whale deaths,” added PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse. “NOAA needs to act now if it wants to prevent what will be a cascade of whale extinctions.”

Tim Whitehouse, Executive Director of PEERTim Whitehouse is the Executive Director of PEER. Among other things, Tim formerly served as an EPA enforcement attorney.

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