Slow Ships for Safe Whales
As a policy intern I spend most of my time in the office, reading a lot of important papers and doing a lot of important things, but every once in a while they unchain me from my desk (remember, we’re against captivity) and let me out on a boat. It’s nice to get out on the water and see the whales that our policy team works so hard to protect. On a recent trip, we came across a fin whale with a large scar on its back, likely as a result of a vessel strike. It was a reminder that even the largest animals on earth (or second largest, in the case of the fin whale) are vulnerable to human activity.
Lightning has been seen with this mark since 2007 – the constantly raw appearance may be caused by whale lice or a fungal infection, preventing the wound from fully healing.
We recently submitted over 74,000 comments in support of extending a ship strike rule to NOAA and the U.S. Government on behalf of concerned citizens. While that rule and our campaign to bring attention to the issue focuses on critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, it is important to remember that all large whales will benefit from this rule, simply by slowing ships down. For ships, the rule targets those over 65ft in length, but vessels of any length are capable of causing damage to (and being damaged by) whales and dolphins.
In brief, the ship strike rule requires vessels 65ft and larger to slow to 10 knots in certain areas at certain times of the year, based on seasonal right whale distribution. Right whales are critically endangered and severely impacted by ship strikes, with an average of two known vessel collision-related deaths per year over the last decade. With a population of less than 500 individuals, losing 2 per year has a significant impact – and this does not include those lost to entanglements and natural causes. The need to protect this species from further human-caused mortality led to the implementation of the initial ship strike rule. While the times and areas managed are specific to right whales, other whales in those areas will also benefit from slower vessels.
For animals as large as whales, a collision with one of the huge ships that carry goods and people across the oceans can cause serious injuries – a 965ft (294.13m) Panamax container ship (one of the smaller ships by today’s standards) can carry up to 270,300,000lbs (124,400,000kgs) of cargo, in addition to the weight of the ship itself. One of these ships hitting a whale is basically like your car hitting a mouse – you probably don’t notice it, it doesn’t do any serious damage to your vehicle, and all that’s left behind is a seriously wounded, or dead, critter. Injuries to whales from these kinds of collisions include crushed skulls and vertebrae, internal hemorrhaging, severed tail stocks, and deep propeller wounds. Often the injuries are internal, and even if the collision is observed (which very rarely happens), the extent of the damage is unknown.
Braid’s propeller scars may have been caused by a smaller vessel that is not regulated by the ship strike rule.
We live in a world that depends on a global economy, and 90% of commerce is moved by ships. We need shipping, but we also need whales. Vessel speed is an important factor in the severity of collisions – it’s basic math that can be extrapolated to speed limits for cars on land: the faster the object is moving, the harder the impact is going to be. Humpbacks, fin whales, and minke whales are all known to use the Gulf of Maine as an important feeding ground, and the less-frequently-seen sei and blue whales also make the occasional appearance. All of these species are at risk of a vessel strike, and slowing ships down will help save these species too, without impacting our ability to trade.
With the exception of a few countries, whaling is a threat of the past (don’t worry, we’re working on that, too), but whales are facing new threats from humans, including ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. Hopefully the fin whale we spotted had no injuries beyond what was visible, but even that will leave a lasting mark and a reminder that our work is never over.