Changing the Deadly Collision Course Between Ships & Whales

Spending substantial time at or near the surface make North Atlantic right whales susceptible to ship strikes, as does their migratory route along the busy waterways of the North American Eastern seaboard.
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For millions of years, the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans have been home to right whales. They feed in the productive higher latitudes, especially from spring to fall. During the winter months, they migrate to lower latitudes if ready to calve.

Once plentiful, centuries of whaling took their toll. While some humpback, blue and southern right whale populations have made significant increases since the decline of whaling and the implementation of regulatory protections and conservation efforts, North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales and Antarctic blue whales remain among the most endangered.

Along with fishing-gear entanglement, ship strikes are a leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales. Spending substantial time at or near the surface make North Atlantic right whales susceptible to ship strikes, as does their migratory route along the busy waterways of the North American Eastern seaboard. Boston, for example, has right whales converging in its congested shipping lanes throughout the year.

As a veterinarian for the International Fund for Animal Welfare Marine Mammal Rescue Research Group, I've spent 17 years responding to strandings of injured and deceased marine mammals on Cape Cod and in other parts of the world. I've seen the damage that ship's hulls and propellers, and fishing-gear entanglement, can do.

While it may seem difficult to be hopeful in the face of this kind of work, I can say that regulatory and educational efforts aimed at changing the deadly collision course between whales and ships are beginning to make a difference.

In 2003, a major paradigm shift was initiated by Canadian colleagues working with international-shipping interests to adjust shipping lanes and define "Areas To Be Avoided" to reduce collision risks. A similar lane adjustment was made in Massachusetts Bay in 2006. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued mandatory speed limits in 2008 along the U.S. east coast in certain locations and times of the year to reduce deaths and serious injuries to right whales. NOAA has since estimated that the rule has reduced the risk of fatal ship strikes to right whales by 80 to 90 percent.

That same year, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers and colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology teamed up with an international energy company and federal regulators on the design and installation of a system of auto-detection buoys near a deep-water port for liquefied natural gas (LNG) in New England.

Using underwater acoustics, the buoys listen for right whale calls along the main shipping lanes into Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor. Once detected, LNG ship operators and coastal resource managers are alerted to their presence, allowing for ships to be slowed or re-routed.

Similar measures along other coasts are also proving promising, such as a recent ship speed-reduction trial in Santa Barbara Channel aimed at protecting blue whales and reducing air pollution.

There's also been a dramatic increase in public education and awareness through projects such as the Whale Alert app. The free mobile app, which debuted in 2012, displays whale safety zones to mariners and provides recommended routes, "Areas To Be Avoided," and near real-time warnings in shipping lanes. The app, revised in 2014, can now also be used to report sightings of live and distressed whales.

While some of these efforts are still too new to be able to measure statistical data on the prevention of whale deaths, they have certainly been successful in increasing public awareness. And education is crucial to the long-term survival of whales.

As for North Atlantic right whales, whose population stalled in the 1990s at around 300, there's slow but encouraging growth. Now they number more than 500 -- a reason to be cautiously optimistic. But there's still much work to be done.

We're moving in the right direction to prevent whale deaths by ship strikes. We need to expand those programs and take the same collaborative approach to addressing other threats that whales face -- pollution, noise, and entanglements in fishing gear.

We're not sure exactly how many right whales die each year because of entanglement. On average, researchers have recorded four deaths per year since 2008, but we believe many more occur and go undiscovered or unrecorded. For example, research on Gulf of Maine humpback whales, which share much of their habitat with North Atlantic right whales, estimates that a minimum of 25 whales likely die each year from entanglements. For a species like right whales, those preventable deaths could eventually lead to extinction.

Like whales, the ocean itself faces many challenges, too. While the threats are significant and numerous, as you've been reading about all week long in the "What's Working" series, there are also documented successes and reasons to be optimistic.

These stories give me hope, not only for the survival of right whales, but for our own species, as well.

Michael Moore is Director of the Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.

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