For some time now, ORCA has been raising concerns about the threat posed to whales by ship strikes, and we have been actively working with the shipping industry to address it on a worldwide scale. So it was alarming to learn that three humpback whales had been struck by large ships in the space of a week in waters around British Columbia, Canada in July. Between July 20 and 29, three separate incidents have come to light of ships colliding with humpbacks. It’s not known if the whales survived. Of the three ships involved, one was a ferry, another carrying workers to a hydroelectric site and another a cruise ship. In addition to these five small vessel strikes were reported between July 20 and August 11.
Some might attribute the incidents more to unfortunate coincidence than anything else – with large numbers of whales taking the journey to waters of the northeast Pacific Ocean at this time of year to feed, combined with areas of high shipping traffic densities. Both shipping traffic and humpback whale populations are on the rise, often in the same areas which increases ship strike risk.
However, coincidence doesn’t appear to be part of the conclusions reached in the peer-reviewed analysis recently published in Inter-Research Science Reader (https://www.int-res.com/articles/esr2023/51/n051p031.pdf) which estimates that by 2030, ship strike mortalities for humpback whales will increase 3.9 times to 18 deaths per year in the Gitga’at First Nation territory which is located close by. The research concluded that increased amounts of shipping, resulting from the construction of a liquefied natural gas shipment project at the Port of Kitimat, which will be fully operational by 2030, could deplete a humpback population that has only just begun to recover after years of unsustainable exploitation. Eric Keen, Science Director at British Columbia Whales went so far as to say “Our models are predicting that there will be so many strikes….that these whale populations are actually going to decline — that we’re going to reverse the recovery of these whale populations that we’ve seen for the last 20, 30 years.”
A threat like this is not something the wider conservation community cannot or will not ignore. And while this single alarming case study throws into sharp focus just how vulnerable whales are to the ever-increasing volumes of shipping on our oceans – what has happened in British Columbia is likely to be happening around the world in a far greater number of instances than is easily recognised.
ORCA’s work, training bridge crews in ship strike mitigation techniques, identifying cetacean hotspots and working with shipping companies to reduce speeds, and avoid whale hotspots by altering routes to avoid collisions, will play an increasing part in mitigating both the risk and impact that shipping causes. It’s reassuring that many shipping companies are actively seeking out our expertise and skills in order to find meaningful ways to address this risk. Where shipping works in partnership with conservationists this can be achieved. And in the case of humpbacks in British Columbia, we hope that what happened is a wake-up call and it begins very soon.