Ship strikes are a significant threat to large whales. In the U.S., vessel collisions are one of the leading human-caused sources of mortality for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. To address this threat, NOAA has developed regulatory and non-regulatory measures to reduce ship strikes, including modification of vessel operations, education and outreach programs, and research and monitoring activities. Stranded large whales are examined externally and internally whenever logistically feasible to assist in diagnosis and appropriate quantification of ship strikes.
In December 2008, the U.S. implemented vessel speed restrictions to reduce the threat of ship collisions with North Atlantic right whales, and to minimize the risk of serious injury or death should a collision occur. These regulations require ships 65 feet or longer to travel 10 knots or less in certain areas along the U.S. East Coast at certain times of year. Studies have shown that these regulations have been highly effective at reducing the number of ship collisions with North Atlantic right whales. NMFS also establishes temporary voluntary speed limits at other times when the presence of a group of three or more right whales is confirmed. In these areas, mariners are expected, but not required, to either avoid these areas or travel through them at 10 knots or less. NOAA has developed and distributed a Compliance Guide for Mariners for this rule. NMFS monitors vessel operations in these management areas for the purposes of enforcing and evaluating the effectiveness of the regulations.
The U.S. Coast Guard and NMFS have established other protective measures to reduce the threat of vessel collisions with North Atlantic right whales, including International Maritime Organization-endorsed (a) Area To Be Avoided (2009) for the waters of Great South Channel; (b) two modifications (in 2007 and 2009) to the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) that services Boston, Massachusetts; and (c) two Mandatory Ship Reporting systems in key right whale aggregation areas (1999). In addition, the U.S. established a set of recommended vessel routes in four locations off the U.S. East Coast in November 2006. Information on these measures and the vessel speed restrictions is available at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/shipstrike/.
The U.S. submitted proposals to the IMO to amend the existing TSS in the Santa Barbara Channel and for the approach to San Francisco to reduce the likelihood of ship strike deaths and serious injury to blue and other whales. Backed by a 2011 U.S. Coast Guard Port Access Route Study that concluded that the burden imposed on shipping by the proposed amendment is minimal while the potential benefits to large whales, particularly blue whales, may be significant, the IMO approved both measures and they went into effect on June 1, 2014 The width of the Santa Barbara Channel TSS separation zone was reduced from 2 nautical miles to 1 nautical mile by moving the inbound lane shoreward, decreasing the co-occurrence of vessels and blue and fin whales. New lanes were added to, and existing lanes were modified in, the San Francisco TSS which will serve to reduce the risk of marine casualties, reduce the likelihood of ship strikes with cetaceans, and avoid interaction between fishing and commercial vessels.
Starting in 2014, two National Marine Sanctuaries on the U.S. West Coast (Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank) have implemented a Dynamic Management Area voluntary vessel speed restriction of 10 knots or less in the three shipping lanes approaching San Francisco Bay, based on whale sightings, locations, behaviors, and seasonal trends. A seasonal voluntary vessel speed restriction is currently in place in 2016 and Automatic Identification System (AIS) data for the area is continuously collected. Since 2008, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (also on the U.S. West Coast) and NMFS have implemented a voluntary vessel speed restriction program seasonally to correspond with the arrival and departure of blue, fin and humpback whales.
Based on AIS data that showed limited cooperation with these voluntary speed reduction requests, in 2014 the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, in partnership with local agencies and NGOs, launched a trial incentive program to slow ships down in the Santa Barbara Channel. Seven global shipping companies participated in 2014 and agreed to slow 27 transits to 12 knots or less from July through November in the Traffic Separation Scheme. This trial program not only demonstrated the willingness of shipping companies to participate in a voluntary, non-regulatory, non-port program, but also set the stage for a larger-scale program in 2016. Currently underway, the vessel speed reduction program is largely modeled of off the 2014 trial, but has been expanded spatially to include a whale-safer transit zone south of the Channel Islands, and to provide financial incentives for more than 65 transits to date.
Whale Alert is a free mobile app (supported by a cloud-based data infrastructure) designed to provide comprehensive and immediate information to mariners relative to large whale conservation and management. Its goal is to reduce the threat of collisions between large whales and ships. Information, including the operating ship’s location, speed restriction zones to protect whales, International Maritime Organization sanctioned Areas to be Avoided and Traffic Separation Schemes, recommended routes, acoustic whale detections, short term whale aggregations and, in some areas, individual whale sightings are visualized on raster nautical charts that can be updated in near-real time. Mariners and other users can input whale sightings or report distressed or injured whales to authorities through Whale Alert, assisted by an easy to use whale identification guide. Now active on the east and west coasts of the U.S. (including Alaska), and in eastern and western Canadian waters, Whale Alert has world-wide applications, including expansion to cover additional taxa and species needing protection. Whale Alert is the product of partnerships among a network of government agencies, NGOs, and shipping and technology companies with the common goal of reducing ship strikes of whales. Whale Alert can be downloaded from: whalealert.org.
Ship strikes are a significant threat to large whales. To address this threat, NOAA has developed regulatory and non-regulatory measures to reduce ship strikes, including modification of vessel operations, education and outreach programs, and research and monitoring activities. Stranded large whales are examined externally and internally whenever logistically feasible to assist in diagnosis and appropriate quantification of ship strikes.