In a first for the U.S., shipping lanes have been moved to avoid collisions with whales.
David Wiley of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Boston Harbor led the science to protect whales from the nearly 5,000 ship transits each year.
David Wiley: Our sanctuary is one of the most heavily used areas in the country for large endangered whales. And also it’s extremely heavily used for commercial shipping traffic. So you put those things together, and there’s a recipe for accidents and collisions to occur.
Wiley used hundreds of thousands of sightings over about 20 years to pin down where and when whales are likely to cross the path of ships. And in mid-2007, about 15 minutes were added to ship routes through the sanctuary, reducing the risk of collision between ships and whales in the area by about 81 percent, according to Wiley.
David Wiley: Our task was to find ways to not limit human activities unnecessarily, but limit it in ways that could certainly have a great conservation bang for the dollar. And that’s exactly what we did by moving the shipping lanes. And that move protects endangered finback, humpback, and right whales.
Wiley said this research into preventing whale strikes can be used beyond the sanctuary near Boston Harbor.
David Wiley: Really, to have right whales survive, these types of activities are going to have to occur all up and down the eastern seaboard, not just in this one isolated case.
Wiley said the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is widely used by whales.
David Wiley: When boats and whales collide, usually the whales are the losers – injury, and sometimes mortality. So our job, of course, is to restrict those collisions and keep whales safer and vessels safer as well.
He said scientists worked together with the shipping industry to create the change that would protect both whales and ships.
David Wiley: We’re very lucky on two fronts. One is that we had really compelling data from large data sets and a lot of ecological variables that we had also explained the data set through. The other thing that we were lucky about is that the change was not large. For the shipping industry, it was a change of about 10 to 20 minutes in their transits, depending on how fast the ship was going. So it was a small impact to the industry, and a very large impact in terms of conservation. And we spent a lot of time with the commercial shipping industry in Boston going over the data, going over their needs, mapping things for them, answering questions that they had. We met with them for about six months in developing the proposal.
Our thanks today to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Our thanks to:
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Image Credit: WCNE & SBNMS – SBNMS. Taken under NOAA Fisheries Permit # 981-1707-00.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.