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Are whale watching boats the greatest collision threat to whales?

“Revealed: whale-watching boats the greatest collision threat to whales” — this big hype headline sadly comes from The Guardian which is normally more careful about reporting. Their subhead is no better: “Guardian Australia analysis of International Whaling Commission data shows motor yachts, naval vessels and ferries come close behind.”

In fact, this database that the journalists “analyzed” represents fragmentary reporting of ship collisions to the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This database is a starting point in terms of trying to encourage reporting of ship strikes of whales and to gauge the extent of the problem worldwide, nothing more.

No one, due to the lack of reporting, knows the scale of the problem of ships hitting whales. In this very preliminary database, most of the reports come from whale watching boats, yachts and naval ships, followed by ferries, because they are the ones doing the reporting! The some 50,000 or more container ships racing around the world ocean at any one time have so far not been co-operating to any extent. Therefore, it is irresponsible to be appearing to blame whale watching boats as the greatest collision threat leading to injuries of whales and naval ships as the biggest threat of fatal collisions with whales!

One might also conclude from The Guardian article that the problem is mainly confined to the US, Australia and Canada where most of the reports come from, but again this is because of the reporting from these countries—which is laudable and not to be discouraged. If we’re going to come to grips with this worldwide problem, we are going to have to have much higher levels of reporting of ship strikes from all types of vessels in all countries.

After the initial article was posted, The Guardian edited the piece to include a disclaimer a few paragraphs down that the “reporting of incidents [could be] skewed by certain vessel types being more likely to report a strike” but the damage to the reputation of whale watching boats from the headline remains.

According to a just published paper by David Laist and colleagues, one key to avoiding fatal collisions is slowing down. To protect the North Atlantic right whale from ship strike collisions which were hampering this species’ recovery, the US instituted a rule in prime right whale areas off the US east coast that all ships had to slow down to 10 knots. After 5 years with this rule in place, no right whales were known to be killed by ship collisions in the areas in which the speed restrictions were in place. This represents the longest period without a ship strike since researchers first became aware of the problem in the late 1980s. Most years since then have seen multiple right whale deaths from ship strikes.

Slowing down will be one way to help the problem of ship strikes but ultimately the best thing will be to separate transiting ships from whales in their prime feeding, breeding and travelling areas. Efforts by WDC and other groups to map some of these areas is beginning, but the challenge will be to obtain data to reduce the probability of ship strikes in large parts of the ocean where little or no ship strike or whale data exist.

All ships at sea need to slow down and smell the plankton.