The Perils of Whale Strikes

Up-to-date information on regulations can prevent vessel damage and save whale lives.

Knowing what to expect and when to expect it goes a long way towards risk free operations aboard large commercial vessels. Avoiding collisions with whales is a case in point. By having the information at hand on whale protection zones and access to regulations that apply to ships within these zones, costly accidents can be avoided and whale lives saved.

There is increasing global concern regarding the effects of ships colliding with marine animals. Vessels can suffer cracked hulls, damaged hydrofoils, rudder damage and so on, while even crew members can suffer injury from being thrown around by the collision. Serious and even fatal injuries to passengers have occurred involving hydrofoil ferries, whale-watching vessels, and recreational craft. In March 2019, for example, a Japanese fast ferry was said to have collided with a whale, resulting in serious injuries to at least 13 passengers.

To give some indication of the potential impact involved in such collisions, it is worth noting that the blue whale is the largest mammal on earth. It can grow to a length of 30 metres (98 feet) and can weigh as much as 175 tons. Hitting one at speed can not only damage the ship and possibly injure its crew members, but it is enough to damage the cargo as well. It can even dislodge containers in worst case scenarios.

Even the smallest in the whale family, the dwarf sperm whale, which averages some three metres (10 feet) in length and weighs up to around 270 kilograms (600 pounds), can cause enough damage to a ship to require drydock repairs. As can dolphins, porpoises, manatees, sharks and so on.

The consequences for the whales themselves should not be overlooked either. Six of the thirteen great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable. There are only about 360 of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales remaining, and vessel strikes from ship traffic, along with entanglements in fixed fishing gear, remain the biggest threats to the survival of the species.

Right whales are among the most endangered species of whale in the world. Residing in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern oceans, these whales are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes due to their habitat and migration routes often overlapping with shipping lanes.

The Regulatory Environment

Whales roam across all the world’s oceans, and different regions have various regulations to protect whales and other marine species, especially at certain times of the year such as migration and mating periods. For example, the 2008 North Atlantic right whale vessel speed regulations stipulate that all vessels 65 feet (19.8 metres) or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in certain locations, known as Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs) along the east coast of the USA during specific times of the year. Smaller vessels are also encouraged to observe the 10 knot speed limit when sailing in SMAs.

There is a mandatory ship reporting system in place. This requires all vessels greater than 300 tons to report to a shore-based station when entering two key right whale habitats, one off the northeast coast, and one off the southeast coast of the USA. In return, ships receive a message about right whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, precautionary measures the ship can take to avoid hitting a whale, and locations of recent sightings.

ISO 9001 certification validates that a maritime company has had its management operations and administrative functions documented by an independent third party. The certification represents a confirmation of quality, and indicates to customers, regulators, and other relevant stakeholders that there is a system in place capable of delivering a service that is safe, efficient, and high in quality.

Canada imposes similar restrictions as well. In 2021, Transport Canada implemented measures for a seven month period to help protect right whales in the Gulf of St Lawrence. During this period, vessels longer than 13 metres (42 feet) were prohibited from entering the restricted area, with certain exceptions. The excepted vessels could not exceed eight knots when transiting in this zone.

Non-compliance with regulations, wherever they are imposed and by whatever authority, can result in costly fines, not to mention damage to the company’s image. For instance, non-compliance with the Transport Canada rules can cost vessel owners monetary penalties of up to $250,000 CAD and/or a penal sanction under the Canada Shipping Act 2001. At least two cargo ships have been fined for sailing too fast through the Gulf of St Lawrence since the 2001 speed restrictions were imposed.

It is thought that mortality caused by ship strikes may make the difference between extinction and survival for the North Atlantic right whale, and a range of mitigation measures have been developed. There are also concerns about the high collision rates with fin whales in the Mediterranean

Well Informed and Well Prepared

Tracking and abiding with speed and exclusion zone regulations can be a challenging exercise for ship owners and operators. It takes time, it’s labour intensive, and it carries the risk of error. Fortunately, there is a safe and simple way to stay abreast of environmental restrictions, even those relating to whale protection.

OneOcean’s digital solution EnviroManager has a whale layer that users turn on to see where whale protection regulations are in place. This enables effective route planning, reduces the risk of non-compliance, reduces uncertainty, protects the company’s reputation and, of course, protects whales.

The system gives real-time guidance on regulations that are relevant to the vessel’s position. It is based on OneOcean’s extensive database, which is continuously monitored and updated by a dedicated team. Environmentally regulated zones are highlighted on the same display used to plot navigational waypoints, view weather forecasts, and assess other risks, allow the user to see a big picture of all route planning factors. A simple click allows the viewing of detailed information on regulations in force, while the distance to and time before entering restricted zones is automatically calculated. In other words, with EnviroManager allows teams to be well informed on what to expect along their voyage, and can thus be well prepared to respond safely and correctly.

10 January 2022