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Avoiding a Collision Course - Local & Global Action to Reduce Whale Ship Strikes

Posted 5 March 2017 by Carol Brighton

During the 2015/16 winter, the Virginian-Pilot reported sightings of two humpback whales suffering injuries characteristic with ship strikes off of Cape Henry, and this year, 3 juvenile humpback whales stranded near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay within days of each other, all apparent victims of ship collisions. Another whale, likeley a humpback too decomposed to determine the cause of the death stranded on the oceanside of Virginia's Eastern Shore shortly after the first 3. NBC news coverage sources NOAA records confirming 173 whale deaths between 2005-2015 from ship strikes nationally. Of those, 11 occurred off Virginia. Because collisions often go unnoticed while recovery and identiflying the cause of death is not always possible, scientists suspect the actual number of lethal ship strikes is likely much higher than reported.

To mitigate potential impacts that naval operations in and around the Chesapeake Bay region could have on migrating species, the Navy initiated a local 3 year study to establish a baseline of behavioral patterns for humpback whales in training and vessel transit areas. Over the winters of 2016 & 2017 humpback whales were tagged with satellite tracking devices. The short-lived devices provide critical information about their activity in our highly trafficked coastal waters. According to Daniel Engelhaupt, a scientist with HRD of Virginia Beach contracted by the Navy to conduct the cetacean research, the "tags are made by Wildlife Computers and rely on minimally invasive sterilized 3 inch dart attachments to secure them to the whale. The darts eventually work their way out within 2-4 weeks leaving only small white marks where they've quickly healed." He notes that, "we do plenty of follow-up monitoring of the tagged whales on subsequent surveys given their affinity for this area to ensure nothing adverse is happening at the tag site."

From boat based surveys and satellite monitoring, Engelhaupt conveyed that "current data suggests strong affiliation to high-traffic areas (mainly at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay) with limited movements through the Navy's nearshore training areas. At times there have been 15+ humpback whales located near the Cape Henry area." A final report on the project is expected soon. Learn more about the project here.

Ship Traffic 2012With no base map, the shear volume of global ship traffic clearly defines a world map. Check out the interactive visualization of ocean going vessels by Kiln.digital.

Whale ship strikes are unfortunately not just a local concern, they are an international problem. When you look at a map of the volume of ship traffic, its easy to see why. As an ecological dilemma of global proportions, the United Nations is now considering how to protect whale species in their habitat which often overlaps with economically important trade routes. In February, in New York City, scientists and government officials met at the United Nations for an event entitled "At The Crossroads: Global Shipping Lanes and Whale Conservation." At the meeting, Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Ocean Giants Program and a panel participant commented that “we have a real opportunity on the global stage this week and in the coming months to work with governments, industry, and conservation organizations to secure concrete actions that will benefit whales and the marine environment.” This preparatory conference will feed into important decisions made by delegates on oceans and marine issues at the upcoming UN Oceans Conference on June 5-9, 2017.

Solutions to reduce whale ship strikes ranging from acoustic monitoring, seasonal ship speed reductions and satellite monitoring of phytoplankton blooms to predict where whales will congregate to feed are covered in this 2013 Tidewater Current post. One simple solution will be tested this summer. Researchers theorize that painting the ship bow a bright color will serve as a visual warning to whales in the cross hairs of an oncoming ship. The UK's Brittany Ferries is teaming up with the nonprofit ORCA, to test this theory by painting ferry bows yellow and observing whether there is any response to the color change.

Check out more Tidewater Current Posts Pertaining to Ocean Protection.





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