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  • Writer's pictureEmma Gillies

The global context of ship strikes

Updated: Mar 6

In a globalized world, countries rely heavily on one another for goods and products. Shipping plays a huge role in transporting materials, and this industry is responsible for roughly 90% of world trade. We ship everything from raw materials and medicine to food and technology, and as a result, the UN has dubbed maritime transport the “backbone of global trade and the global economy.”

While billions of people around the world depend on shipping to sustain their livelihoods or quality of life, it is important to understand the environmental consequences. Shipping releases far less carbon dioxide per tonne compared to land or air transport, but the industry is so large that it would come sixth on the list of the world’s most polluting countries.

Globally, there is now four times as much maritime traffic as there was 20 years ago. Busy shipping lanes often overlap with essential whale habitat, and whales that come into contact with vessels can sustain injuries or die. A study found that roughly 15% of humpback whales in the southern Gulf of Maine have been hit by ships. Populations such as the North Atlantic right whale off the east coast of the US and Canada and the fin whale in the Mediterranean Sea have very high collision rates with boats. However, accurate statistics on ship strikes are scarce due to lack of data. The numbers that we do have are likely underestimates because ship crews often don’t realize that they’ve hit a whale, or they simply don’t report it. According to the International Whaling Commission, for every reported incident, there will be many others that go unnoticed, which makes understanding the effects of ship strikes extremely difficult.

In Canada, there are 42 different whale populations, 18 of which are labelled at risk by Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Shipping traffic on Canada’s coasts is increasing, particularly in the Arctic, where reduced ice cover is opening up new shipping routes. In fact, the number of ships entering the Arctic grew by 25% from 2013 to 2019, which could pose a threat to Arctic species such as belugas and narwhals. Off other Canadian coastlines, the endangered North Atlantic right whale is very susceptible to ship strikes, as its habitat and migration routes are often close to ports and shipping lanes. In 2017, 2% of the entire North Atlantic right whale population was lost in just two months, with ship collisions a likely culprit for some of the deaths.

While huge tankers and cruise ships are more likely to kill whales than smaller boats, ship strikes can occur with many different types of vessels, including smaller fishing boats, research vessels, whale watching boats, sailing yachts, and even kayaks. Ship strikes can result in sharp and blunt force injuries to whales and can eventually lead to mortality. Possible injuries include severed fins, contusions, lacerations, and bone fractures, and even if such injuries are not lethal, they often lead to pain, stress, and negative psychological effects that can result in a lower quality of life for the animal. In addition, the increase in shipping has amplified background noise levels underwater, thus disrupting echolocation, which is vital for most whales to navigate or feed. Higher noise levels can also interfere with whale communication, force them to move away from certain areas, and lead to hearing impairment.

Ship strikes do not just affect whales, however. People on board the vessel can suffer injuries and even die, particularly on smaller boats. In addition, the ships themselves—both large and small—can incur damage. Changes in whale populations could also have consequences for humans. A decrease in population growth rate or a decline in the number of fertile whales as a result of ship strikes could lead to long-term population impacts, with potential consequences for the marine environment at large. After all, whales sequester carbon, recycle nutrients, and are an essential part of the food chain, since they consume lower-tier organisms such as fish and invertebrates and are prey for other high trophic level animals. The health of the ocean is important for humans in many ways: it regulates the climate, feeds billions of people around the world, builds the economy and tourism industry, and provides us with personally fulfilling and recreational services.

Ships can avoid collisions with whales by changing their routes and avoiding areas with known whale populations, reducing their speed, placing observers on board vessels, and using early warning technologies to spot whales before they are hit. Identifying knowledge gaps to assess the extent of collisions and their long-term consequences will require more accurate reporting and data, but it is an essential step to better understanding the extent of the problem. Whale Seeker is creating solutions to increase the availability of spatial and temporal whale location data so that ship strikes can be a thing of the past.


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