Canadians produce mariner’s guide to whales; can U.S. follow?

If knowledge is power, officials in British Columbia have taken a strong step to protect whales by producing a booklet that can help ship captains reduce the threats to marine mammals.

The “Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada” (PDF 39.3 mb) was compiled and published by the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, a branch of the Vancouver Aquarium. Financial support came from nearby ports.

The guide is just one step in resolving conflicts between ships and whales, but it seems like a worthwhile move. If people who control the ships are willing to put scientific information into action, they could avoid cumbersome regulations along with unintended consequences that sometimes arise from political battles.

“The purpose of this guide is to help mariners reduce their risk of striking and killing, or seriously injuring a cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise),” writes researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a preface to the guide. “It includes descriptions of frequently encountered whales and dolphins, locations along the coast where cetacean densities are highest, and simple measures they can take to greatly reduce their risk of striking a whale, dolphin or porpoise.

“I have yet to meet a mariner who doesn’t feel terrible if his or her ship hits a cetacean … so I know the motivation to reduce strikes is there,” Lance continued. “The key is knowing how to do it. To that end, I hope that bridge crews on vessels transiting through B.C. coastal waters will use the information in this guide to reduce the risk of hitting a whale on their watch.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if this guide was just a well-packaged publication that would be put out for passersby to pick up. But, in checking with port officials, they are being quite deliberate in getting the guides to the ship captains and crew members who can use them.

Prevalence of marine mammals, high to low density.
Graphic: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

Danielle Jang, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, sent me this email:

“The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has 500 hard copies we are currently mailing out to mariners across B.C., including Chamber of Shipping, B.C. Ferries, B.C. Coast Pilots, Cruise Lines International Association, Shipping Federation, Washington State Ferries along with some of our other key partners. The Port of Prince Rupert is distributing hard copies to the northern mariners as well.

“My understanding,” she said, “is that the guides are being distributed and given to the pilots and mariners directly, so that they have them right there with them while on the vessel with the information in the guide at their fingertips.”

I’ve since discussed the need for a similar guide in the United States with government officials on both sides of the border. I understand that there are some brief guides for ship pilots in Puget Sound as well as captains on the Washington State Ferries. But it seems that most people agree that a more detailed guide would be helpful. It would probably require a private organization stepping forward with some funding.

Prevalance of marine mammals, high to low density
Graphic: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

The guide for Western Canada is modeled on a similar “Guide to Whales in the Northwest Atlantic” (PDF 33.4) by Réseau d’observation de mammifères marins (ROMM), a Canadian marine mammal protection organization.

From 2004 to 2011, 30 collisions or likely collisions between ships and whales were officially reported in British Columbia — and that may be just a fraction of the actual collisions. Animals involved included killer whales, humpback whales, gray whales, fin whales and harbor porpoises.

On the U.S. West Coast, about 60 ship collisions were reported with large whales from 1997 to 2001, according to a database compiled for NOAA (PDF 2.2 mb). Again, the reported ship strikes are probably just a fraction of the total number.

All states have some ship-strike reports, with California having the greatest number, followed by Alaska and Washington. Animals involved included gray whales, fin whales, humpback whales and blue whales.

Reducing ship speed can help avoid collisions, according to the mariner’s guide. That may be even more important in U.S. waters, where the endangered blue whales roam off the California Coast. Blue whales tend to spend more time near the surface at night when they are not feeding, and they don’t seem to respond well to approaching ships, according to a report to the American Cetacean Society (PDF 7.4 mb) by John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective. John describes why changing the shipping lanes can help reduce the risk to blue whales.

A new program called WhaleWatch combines satellite-tracking data on blue whales with ocean conditions to predict where blue whales are likely to be. That information, in map form, is shared with the public.

“We’re using the many years of tag data to let the whales tell us where they go, and under what conditions,” Elliott Hazen, a research ecologist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said in a news release. “If we know what drives their hotspots, we can more clearly assess different management options to reduce risk to the whales.”

Another threat to whales is noise, which has gotten significant attention with respect to endangered killer whales. We know these animals locate prey by producing sounds and that noise from ships and boats can interfere with both finding prey and communications.

“In the North Pacific Ocean, underwater noise has doubled in intensity every decade for the past 60 years,” according to the mariner’s guide. “In high vessel traffic areas, whale communication and echolocation can be almost completely masked by noise. Vessel noise can also increase a whale’s stress level and cause it to move away from or avoid entering an area.”

To reduce the effects of noise, vessels can be operated below speeds that cause cavitation of the propeller. Vessel operators also help by avoiding rapid acceleration and steering around areas where whales are known to congregate. Keeping hulls and propellers clean and taking steps to reduce the transmission of engine noise into the water are other helpful steps, according to the report.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority took another leap forward in January when it launched a financial incentive program for ships using quieter technology. Cargo and cruise ships can save several thousand dollars on each port visit if they operate with proven sound-reduction technologies. For information, check out the CBC story by Matt Meuse, or read the port’s news release.

Reducing East Coast whale strikes

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