At Whale Seeker, we’re always interested in the value chain of maritime trade where environmental responsibility can enter — or already is entering — the picture. One locus for change that deserves a whole blog post is ports. Ports are uniquely positioned: for starters, the areas where whales and marine traffic come in contact most tend to be coastal areas near major population centres — coinciding in large part with the shipping lanes leading to and from ports. Secondly, ports are distinctive in the maritime industry by their accountability to public opinion and governments. In Canada, the sustainability of their practices is accountable through legislation like the Canada Marine Act. In addition, ports are places where the global and the local intersect.
Because they interact with ships from all over the world, ports can and have set a standard for the ships that dock there, by setting up programs that offer monetary incentives to compliant ships. For instance, the Green Wave Program at the Port of Prince Rupert on the Canadian Pacific coast offers discounts from harbour dues for ships using technologies that are known to reduce emissions or underwater noise. The discounts are tiered according to the effectiveness of the technologies employed, and rise from 10% to 50%. An example of a slightly more involved, yet still entirely voluntary and port-driven initiative is the ECHO Program, coordinated by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, Canada’s largest port. Among the diversity of marine life in the Salish Sea, where the port’s shipping lanes are located, are one of the world’s most critically endangered whale populations, the Southern Resident Killer Whales, of which only 73 individuals remain today. To make matters worse, their foraging and social behaviours of these incredibly vocal marine mammals have been increasingly disrupted by the persistent noise of ships transiting to and from the port. Since the introduction of the ECHO program, the program has managed to halve the ship noise in the key areas it’s targeted. Why has it seen such great success?
For one thing, it succeeded because it had data on its side. The ECHO program began in 2014, and in its early years was primarily concerned with establishing credible and exhaustive baseline data for ship noise in the area. This meant collaborating with JASCO and Transport Canada to set up listening stations, and gather thousands of sound intensity measurements of ship transits. It meant working with people who knew about whales to target key areas. It meant finding out which ships made the most noise, at which speeds, and slowly narrowing in on the key question: what was the least intrusive change that could be made, while yielding the most significant reduction in noise? When the ECHO program finally introduced its voluntary slowdowns, it started small. In 2019, it doubled the size of the slowdown area, but managed to keep compliance above 80%, all on a voluntary basis.
A second possible reason for ECHO’s success is that it takes a village to save a whale — and the ECHO program made one, by bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, from onshore and off. Ports are a natural place for this kind of coordination and consultation, since they’re at the crossroads between multiple industries, and government, as well as being embedded in communities.
But ports also need to stay competitive while they make gains in sustainability. What incentive is there for ports to put this kind of program in place, and risk having shippers turn elsewhere? To some extent, this is a limitation of this kind of voluntary initiative. But there is also a role to be played by independent organizations that recognize and coordinate sustainability efforts across the industry. Green Marine is the most noteworthy such organization today, working with dozens of major ports across North America — as well as shipowners and shipyards — to push the industry forward on sustainability goals. They do this by providing yearly ratings to participating members on a number of environmental criteria. These criteria require ports (and other players) to set specific targets, and reward them when they reach those targets. Scoring is staged in a way that rewards the research and prototyping phases of programs, as well as their actual implementation.
At Whale Seeker, we’re excited about this approach, because it acknowledges the importance of developing programs that are informed by data. We believe that the only way to avoid both whale deaths and unsustainable financial costs is to start with plentiful and reliable data. We’re also excited about working with ports, as well as other maritime industries, to help provide the data needed to create a more sustainable future at sea.