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How to fight the ‘silent massacre’ of whale-ship collisions

Environmental group releases whale-safe certification, practices for shippers

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Oceangoing vessels are critical in transporting goods internationally, but the growing demand for ocean shipping also impacts marine life below the surface.

Collisions between ships and whales are increasing, and researchers are likely underestimating the frequency of these events, according to Friend of the Sea, a global marine conservation project that is part of a larger environmental group, World Sustainability Organization.

“Increases in the size and number of ships in the trading fleets of the world increase the potential for lethal ship strikes and displacement dramatically,” Karen Wristen, executive director of environmental organization Living Oceans Society, told FreightWaves.

Shipping lanes frequently go near or through high-risk breeding and feeding zones for whales, and collisions are often fatal for the mammals, a recent Friend of the Sea report said.

Even if whales survive the initial strike, they often die soon afterward, sinking to the bottom of the ocean or washing ashore. Researchers inspect beached whales for signs of ship collisions, but the report said the number of deadly encounters is likely much higher than estimated because the whales often sink to the ocean floor without notice.

“For some populations, such as the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), ship strikes have been responsible for over half of all mortalities in recent decades and as such are a major limiting factor to the survival of this species,” a 2018 study at Macquarie University in Australia said.

Preliminary research as part of a study to be released in early 2022 estimates that between 18,000 and 25,000 whales die from ship collisions annually, Roberto Lombardi, conservation campaigns developer and sustainable standards promoter for Friend of the Sea, told FreightWaves.

“An important campaign we are carrying out is this one to save the whales from ship strikes, [which are] considered to be major threats to marine mammals,” Lombardi said.

How to prevent whale-ship collisions

Many whale-ship collisions go unnoticed by vessel operators and unreported to researchers, the report said. It would be easy for operators of large ocean vessels to have no idea whether there was a whale strike or how often collisions occur.

“For many populations of marine giants, the consequences of interactions with shipping vessels remain largely unknown. This knowledge gap exists for several reasons: difficulties in studying species because of their behavior, rarity or remoteness; changes in species movement over time, affecting the ability to predict interactions; or underreporting or lack of reporting of interaction events,” the study said.

Only 10% of whales that die from ship strikes wash ashore, according to Friend of the Sea, which means that up to 90% of whale deaths from ship impacts go unnoticed. 

The marine group called this a “silent massacre.”

But there are actions shippers can take to reduce the potential for whale collisions. That’s why Friend of the Sea created the whale-safe certification. 

“One way to reduce whale-ship strikes is to separate ships and whales by moving shipping lanes away from areas of known whale concentrations,” Lombardi said. 

For example, he said studies have concluded that by moving the east-west shipping lanes off the coast of Sri Lanka 15 miles south of the current routes, “the risk of whale-ship strikes would be reduced by 94%. Unfortunately, this has not happened yet, and the endangered blue whale population is still suffering a very high mortality every year in the area,” Lombardi said.

In addition to moving shipping lanes, Lombardi said that slowing the speed of vessels can give whales more time to respond, reducing the number of whale-ship impacts and increasing the chances of a whale surviving a collision. 

He said that slowing ship speed typically reduces the chances of a whale collision by 50%.

“Slowing down, adopting noise-reduction measures and strictly observing whale sanctuaries are three steps the shipping industry can take to improve the odds for whales and other marine mammals, and they will likely result in better safety and fuel efficiency for the industry as well,” Wristen said. “Ports and shippers need to cooperate in this effort by improving traffic control and eliminating contractual incentives that force or reward speed.” 

Read: Environmental group targets retailers’ ‘shady’ shipping routes

How do shippers become certified as ‘whale safe?’

Lombardi said, “Our Friend of the Sea program calls on the international maritime sector to act immediately to prevent ship-to-whale collisions. Shipping companies [that] comply with a minimum set of measures will be awarded the whale-safe certification, which will in turn help their customers and consumers recognize their efforts to protect whales and make a responsible choice.” 

To become certified as whale safe, a shipping company must:

  • Use full-time observations and technology such as thermal imaging cameras to detect nearby whales.
  • Share real-time whale-sighting data with nearby vessels and Friend of the Sea via an online platform.
  • Follow established procedures after sighting whales nearby, such as changing route or slowing ship speed.
  • Comply with voluntary and regulatory speed reductions and collision-mitigation guidelines in high-risk areas.
  • Provide lookouts with proper whale-sighting equipment and training and assign adequate lookouts in areas known for high concentrations of marine mammals.
  • Use ducted or hidden propellers to avoid possible whale injuries.

In addition to these whale-centered compliance measures, companies must also comply with International Maritime Organization regulations, engage in collaboration and R&D for environmental technologies and properly manage their water and waste.

There are a few companies that are close to being whale-safe certified, but none are yet, Lombardi said. However, his team is in frequent conversation with sustainability directors and CEOs of large and small shipping companies and cruise lines about the certification.

Two carriers, Seatrade and GreenSea, are certified for sustainable shipping by Friend of the Sea. Seatrade should be certified as whale safe soon as it already meets many of the requirements, Lombardi said.

Seatrade did not respond to a request for comment.

“If implemented well, the true impacts of sustainable shipping can go far beyond merely preventing additional greenhouse gas emissions,” said Tyler Cole, director of carbon intelligence at FreightWaves. 

“Just like voluntary carbon markets, project value increases when including co-benefits, such as positive outcomes for biodiversity and local communities. In order to monetize those benefits, firms should be able to market their sustainability credentials as compliant with rigorous standards and independent verification,” Cole said.

Climate, economic impact of whales

Whales positively impact marine ecosystems and act as carbon sinks. When considering the amount of carbon sequestering potential whales have in their lifetime, each right whale is valued at $2 million, according to Lombardi. He said the entire global population of right whales is valued at $1 trillion.

“When a whale dies, an average of 33 tons of CO2 is taken from the atmosphere and sinks to the ocean-carbon sink for thousands of years,” Lombardi said. That’s the same amount of carbon it would take one tree to absorb in 1,600 years.

Aside from directly impacting carbon levels, whales also benefit plankton — aquatic organisms that are a vital food source for many marine creatures.

“The waste products of whales provide key ingredients that stimulate the growth of plankton, which is sequestering 40% of carbon produced globally,” Lombardi said.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.