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Watching out for whales: Reducing risks when ships and whales share the seas

Whales and ships have shared the seas since man first learned to sail thousands of years ago. However, the volume of shipping traffic worldwide today poses a serious threat.
Shipping traffic increased 300% between 1992 and 2013, and continues to increase at a rate of 2-3% per year. Ships that keep growing in size and speed now move 10.3 billion tons of goods around the globe each year. Ship-based travel has also escalated, with fast-passenger ferries racing through coastal areas also used by whales and dolphins.

Death or injury from ship strikes
Many of the world’s busiest shipping and ferry lanes overlap directly with areas where whales are feeding, giving birth, nursing their young, or traveling between their feeding and breeding grounds. When ships travel quickly through these areas, there is a high risk of collision, injury and death, as whales are often unable to get out of the ship’s path in time. Ship strikes are known to be one of the leading causes of death for endangered and vulnerable whale populations, including Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right whales, of which fewer than 500 remain following hundreds of years of hunting.

Disrupted navigation, communication and/or hearing due to shipping noise
Ships’ engines are responsible for a doubling in background noise levels underwater during every decade over the last fifty years. Underwater noise created by shipping can stop whales from being able to communicate with each other and can interfere with their navigation, causing them to be disoriented or isolated from the rest of their group. Prolonged exposure to loud sounds may even result in hearing loss or injury. To avoid underwater noise, whales or dolphins may leave areas where food is plentiful, or the calm waters that offer protection for nursing their young. When this happens, whales and their calves may lose out on opportunities to feed or rest and gain strength, putting their long term survival at risk.
The carcass of a female Northern right whale (<i>Eubalaena glacialis</i>) killed by a ... 
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF
The carcass of a female Northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) killed by a ship collision, Nova Scotia, Canada.
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF
Why is this happening?
Shipping companies are under pressure to deliver goods as quickly and cheaply as possible. They may be unaware of measures that could reduce the risk of striking whales or reduce the noise their engines make, or they may perceive any changes to their ‘normal’ operations as being too costly or inconvenient.
What is WWF doing?
  •  WWF International Commissioned  a Fact Sheet on the risks of ship strikes to cetaceans.
  • The WWF Arctic Programme has created an animated film on the risks that underwater noise poses to cetaceans. 
  • WWF France has been working with Shipping companies in the Pelagos Sanctuary to develop and test a whale avoidance system called REPCET
  • WWF Peru and WWF Panama have been working with the Smithsonian Institute to raise awareness of the risk that shipping lanes pose and create a safe corridor for migrating whales.
the blue whale

© wwf

What more can WWF do under the new deal for whales and dolphins?
With your support we will work globally to implement three main strategies to reduce the impact of shipping on whales worldwide:
1. Gathering the science and building a solutions toolbox: We will develop strong cases for governments and industry demonstrating the impacts of shipping on whales and the need to act urgently. We will review all the available tools used by ships to mitigate impacts – including re-routing of shipping lanes in critical whale habitat, the introduction of speed limits, and vessel modifications to reduce underwater noise – and build recommendations for governments and industry.
2. Demonstrating the possible: We will support use of mitigation tools and recommendations at local scales around the world. We will engage at least one global shipping company that models best practices, and work with them to champion this important cause to the industry.
3. Global collaboration and advocacy: As a global NGO with a proven track record of effective advocacy, we will take our recommendations and case studies to the International Maritime Organization – the UN authority for global regulation of shipping – where we will push for stronger governance and measures to safeguard whales from ship strikes and underwater noise. We will coordinate our work with other international organisations such as the International Whaling Commission and engage the public to support our efforts so we can achieve maximum impact.
Striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)

© Frédéric Bassemayousse/WWF