Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Whales and ships have shared the seas since the first humans made voyages across the world. However, the volume of shipping traffic worldwide today poses a serious threat to the lives of whales. Cargo ships sailing across the oceans are endangering the lives of whales at increasing rates, shipping traffic increased 300% between 1992 and 2013 and continues to increase at a rate of 2-3% per year.When ships travel quickly through these areas, there is a high risk of collision, injury and death, as whales are often unable to get out of the ship’s path in time. A large ship creates something called a ‘bow null effect’ blocking the engine noise by the bow, creating a quiet zone in front of the vessel, and leaving a whale unaware of the pending threat.Ship strikes are one of the leading causes of death for endangered whale species including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale species, of which fewer than 500 remain.
Whales are highly intelligent, sentient creatures able to feel both physical and mental pain and stress. Big cargo vessels are not only killing whales but leaving some seriously injured or disrupting them causing them to become isolated. The noise these ships create can disturb communication between whales, interfering with their navigation and as a result their feeding and breeding. Many of the world’s busiest shipping and ferry lanes overlap directly with areas where whales are feeding, giving birth, nursing their young, or traveling between their feeding and breeding grounds. It is estimated that the ships engines are responsible for a doubling in background noise levels underwater during every decade over the last fifty years. In order to avoid the noise whales will leave areas of the ocean where food is in good supply, or the calm waters that offer protection for nursing their young. When this happens, whales and their calves may lose out on opportunities to feed or rest and gain strength, putting their long-term survival at risk.
How is this happening and why is this being allowed to happen? Collisions between whales and shipping vessels are especially prevalent in areas where whale habitat overlaps with busy port traffic. Many shipping companies are under huge pressure to meet the demands of modern consumerism. To fit in with today’s neoliberal business models, shipping companies have to try to ship goods as cheaply and as quickly as possible. They may be unaware of measures that could reduce the risk of striking whales or reduce the noise their engines make, or they may perceive any changes to their ‘normal’ operations as being too costly or inconvenient. Whale strikes also damage the ships however, so surely it is in the cargo companies interests to find viable solutions. Small vessels involved in whale strikes have suffered cracked hulls, damage to propellers and rudders, and blown engines. Passengers on board have been knocked off their feet or even thrown in the air and been seriously injured.
What are the solutions and what is being done by governing bodies to stop this crisis? The obvious answer would be to ensure shipping routes do not coincide with the bodies of the ocean where whales are known to use, but this might not be a simple thing to achieve. While a number of technological efforts have been researched to reduce the risk of striking whales, none have yet proven viable. Some may even increase risk to whales, as they respond by surfacing, putting them further in harm’s way. WWF have been working on schemes in various parts of the world aiming to raise awareness and facilitate a change in practices in order to help save whale populations. WWF France has been working with Shipping companies in the Pelagios Sanctuary to develop and test a whale avoidance system called REPCET. WWF Peru and WWF Panama have been working with the Smithsonian Institute to raise awareness of the risk that shipping lanes pose and create a safe corridor for migrating whales. If shipping is going to continue to increase then at the same time governments and environmental foundations need to double their efforts to help stop this crisis.