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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm Kennedy

The carrot or the stick: how to encourage sustainability at sea

Updated: Mar 6



Those of us who are interested in environmental causes often find ourselves asking, if we know what the problem is, and we know the solution...then why is progress so slow? When the political will for mandatory regulations is lacking, private, voluntary approaches often take their place. For instance, in response to growing concerns among the public and investors around greenhouse gas emissions, the Carbon Disclosure Project was formed to conduct voluntary emissions reporting. Today, nearly one-fifth of global GHG emissions are reported through the CDP. This transparency places pressure on emitters to improve between reports, and holds them accountable when they don’t. In the forest industry, the Forest Stewardship Council has emerged as a certification of sustainable practices, with significant market penetration — although the effectiveness of their standards is not controversial.


Voluntary initiatives can come to fruition before mandatory rules are politically possible — meanwhile, critics point out that they may detract from regulatory momentum, leaving us stranded halfway between the status quo and what could have been achieved with regulation. Voluntary initiatives are also often able to achieve international scope more quickly, and with less political uncertainty, than government-mandated rules.



One key issue that both governmental and corporate initiatives have struggled to tackle is ship strikes on whales. As with traffic accidents, a key factor in determining whether a vessel strike will kill a whale is the speed of the vessel — just as automotive accidents involving speeding cars are more likely to be fatal. As a result, slowing down ship traffic in key areas where whales congregate is one of the most effective ways to curb collisions. As an added bonus, ship slowdowns reduce noise. So how do we make these slowdowns happen?


As with many environmental issues, both governmental and corporate initiatives have called for slowdowns, with varying degrees of success. In 2017, there were widespread fears that ship strikes might push the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale over the brink into extinction. As a result, both Canadian and American governments put in place ten-knot speed limits for large vessels at times and places where right whales were thought to be present. These speed limits carry a fine in some places, but are voluntary elsewhere.


In the Canadian context, two-thirds of vessels are still ignoring the voluntary speed limit in at least one key area of the slowdown. Adherence is similarly low in American waters.


On the West Coast, by contrast, voluntary slowdowns have shown more promise. This past summer Canada’s largest port, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, put in place a purely voluntary slowdown in Haro Strait and Boundary Pass, two areas where vessels are often in the vicinity of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. It achieved 90% participation, with the same speed limit as the east coast. Could this be because stakeholders had participated in creating the regulatory measures in the first place, fostering more ownership over the outcome? Is good press a more powerful motivator than government censure? Maybe. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the slowdown area is significantly smaller than those put in place for right whales, and so the cost incurred by adherence is lower. Because of this and other differences between the two programs, it remains unclear whether voluntary or mandatory initiatives will more reliably protect the world’s most vulnerable whale species. However, the geographic precision of the successful Haro Strait and Boundary Pass slowdown might provide a clue to what the future of ship strike prevention might look like.


As real-time knowledge of whale whereabouts comes into focus, slowdowns have the potential to become increasingly precise in both time and space. More localized slowdowns could achieve the same results, with less costly delays to shipping and, consequently, higher adherence. Whale Seeker is building the tools to make this possible, by automating aerial whale detection, so humans and whales can coexist at sea.

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