While 7 out of 13 great whale species are on the trajectory to extinction given pervasive overfishing and being caught as ‘by-catch’, colliding with ships has been identified as the main threat to whales in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans.
Though ship collisions have been identified by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as a significant threat to whale populations, the phenomenon remains widely unknown and research into preventative measures has consequently been neglected.
With globalisation prompting exponential rises in ocean traffic, shipping lanes have begun to overlap with prominent whale migration routes, leading to whale-ship bottlenecks that have exacerbated collision incidents to alarming rates. There exist 11 high risk areas spanning six continents where dense concentrations of threatened whale populations reside and share waters with congested shipping routes, accounting for most deaths.
Recent evidence has also revealed that small ships and even sailing boats travelling at slow speeds still exhibit a 90% mortality rate to whales and other large marine mammals in collision incidents. Even if a whale manages to survive a collision, the impacts sustained would elicit terminal injuries or heavy psychological trauma, inducing unbearable living until the ultimate demise of the mammal.
Current models use beached whales as the primary methodology to speculate whale mortalities, where 1 in 5 stranded whales in the Mediterranean have shown signs of ship strikes. However, it is estimated that only 10% of dead whales ultimately end up on beaches, suggesting that the true extent of whale mortalities is vastly underestimated. Additionally, conventional ships are not equipped with specific monitoring systems capable to detect collision incidents and therefore most incidents go undetected and subsequently unreported, exacerbating the obscurity of the issue.
Friend of the Sea, a global marine conservation project that certifies sustainable fisheries, aquacultures, and cosmetics, has now initiated the Sustainable Shipping and Whale-Safe Certification as a tangible contribution to ameliorate the issue. The certification is awarded to ships that employ an array of on-board enhancements capable of identifying large mammals in the vicinity, notifying nearby vessels in the case, showcasing robust evasive action protocols, and the technical capabilities to store collision information.
The criteria aim to attract critical attention, introduce a conventional standard of detection and help to propagate vital research to accurately illustrate the severity that collisions are inflicting towards already threatened whale populations.
Friend of the Sea has also been actively engaged in advocating the issue to influential actors, namely the World Shipping Council.
Joint Negotiations have taken place to pressure the Sri Lankan ministries to shift prominent shipping lanes in the vicinity merely 15 miles south, away from congested whale migrating routes, estimated to reduce whale-ship strikes by over 90%.
Whales, a keystone species and regulator of marine ecosystems globally, also represent a substantial carbon sequestering agent, responsible for absorbing large amounts of atmospheric C02 and subsequently contributing significantly towards the ocean carbon sink. When a whale dies, an average of 33 tons of CO2 is taken from the atmosphere and stored in the ocean depths for thousands of years, the equivalent amount a tree would take 1600 years to absorb.
The substantial amount of carbon ascribes each whale with a lifetime sequestering value worth US$2 million, with the entire population globally valued at US$1 trillion.
It is therefore imperative that the additional, yet preventable threat of whale-ship collisions receives further attention as inaction would irrefutably push whale populations on a trajectory beyond the threshold of repair and to the brink of inevitable extinction.
Greater collective efforts are essential to ensure the longevity of whales, to not only maintain pristine marine biodiversity but to safeguard effective carbon sequestering opportunities in the midst rapid climate change.
Author of the article: Sean Dean Lewis, International Media Officer of World Sustainability Organization
Sean Dean Lewis is an environmental writer working for the World Sustainability Organization, in charge of campaigning for the uptake of environmental certifications across supply chains worldwide.
Sean conducts exhaustive investigatory research into anthropogenic activities that are devastating marine and terrestrial ecosystems, attracting critical media attention to the issues and fostering alternative, pro-environmental means of production processes.