Slow ships to lessen collisions with whales

opens in a new windowSlow ships to lessen collisions with whales / Press of Atlantic City / March 8, 2023

In summer ice cream consumption rises and so do shark attacks. Obviously there is no causal connection between these disparate facts. (Thanks to Dr. Amy for this example of correlation not causation.) Likewise, as emphasized by NOAA scientists, there is no causal connection between the recent whale strandings on the Jersey shores and the work currently being conducted by offshore wind developers.

Necropsies on the whales by scientists at NOAA concluded that in 40% of cases the deaths were attributable to ship strikes or fishing gear entanglements. (These necropsies are performed soon after a whale’s demise. Decomposition hinders analysis.)

This is not only a N.J. problem. From 2016 to 2023, NOAA reported over 180 humpback whale strandings from Maine to Florida, an unusual mortality event which NOAA must investigate. Other states experiencing whale deaths include Massachusetts with 35, 25 in N.C., 35 in N.Y. and 28 in Va., including areas where no offshore wind work is ongoing.

Climate change contributes to the problem as well. The fish that humpbacks feed on prefer warmer water and grow in abundance as the ocean warms. In the winter these fish move closer to shore, drawing the whales and increasing the likelihood of collisions with ships frequenting the area.

Couple this with the fact that the humpback whale population has grown from 15,000 to about 85,000. That coincides with human population growth along the Eastern seaboard, offering more opportunities for negative whale and human interactions.

Rather than stop offshore wind work, make ships comply with the speed limits of 10 knots or less in the Seasonal Management Area off the ports of N.Y., N.J. and Delaware Bay; and, as expensive as it is, have fishing interests use ropeless fishing gear.

Finally, no whales can just get out of the way of ships to avoid collisions. Senior scientist Mark Baumgartner from the Woods Hole Oceanic Institution explained in a recent webinar that whales hear rumbling from passing ships all the time. Because they can’t localize the sound, whales don’t know which way to maneuver to avoid a collision. So it’s up to us.

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