In an effort to prevent deadly collisions between ships and marine life along the West Coast of Canada, a new set of guidelines for mariners has been created, one which offers a five-step strategy to help with vessel-cetacean collisions and disturbances.
But with increasing commercial traffic in the waters in and around Vancouver Island and up the Coast, conservationists say that voluntary guidelines are not enough and are calling for mandatory regulations to stem the tide of collisions with whales, dolphins and other marine life.
From sea otters to blue whales, over 20 species of marine mammals make their home along the B.C. coast, the same waters that serve as a central highway for commerce, making for a potentially deadly combination. One of the most significant threats that whales face is injury or death from vessel collisions. Just this past December, a killer whale washed up on the Sunshine Coast, a victim of blunt force trauma likely caused by a vessel strike, said Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials. The orca was identified as J-34, part of the J-pod of orcas, a male who was born in 1998 and was known by the nickname Double Stuf.
Developed by the Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute in partnership with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and the Prince Rupert Port Authority, the new guidelines give mariners an idea of where the highest densities of cetaceans are found along the Coast and where known cetacean strikes have occurred.
“We are so fortunate in British Columbia; our coastal ecosystem is home to an incredible array of whales, dolphins and porpoises,” said Caitlin Birdsall, marine mammal researcher with the Institute. “It’s also host to increasing marine traffic and this is a terrific example of agencies working together to address common threats to at-risk wildlife.”
Not just marine vessels themselves but the noise disturbance they create can be a major problem especially for whales, whose ability to communicate and socialize as well as navigate and forage for food are all affected by vessel noise. The report notes that underwater noise in the North Pacific Ocean has doubled in intensity every decade for the past 60 years. The new guidelines are meant to provide advice on mitigating marine noise through activities such as vessel maintenance, propeller design and the proper mounting of engines, all part of a five-step strategy to keep large vessel impact on cetaceans at a minimum.
Yet, while helpful in principle, on its own the guide isn’t enough, says Scott West of the Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, who argues that governments need to adopt and enforce regulations around water protection zones.
“Voluntary guidelines only work for individuals already committed to protecting cetaceans. Individuals with other priorities need enforced regulations,” said West, the former Agent-in-Charge at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, to CKNW News. “Realistic approaches could consist of establishing protected areas or monitoring established shipping lanes and re-route them away from common or critical whale habitat.”
Between 2004 and 2011, 30 vessel-cetacean incidents were reported to the BC Marine Mammal Response Network and investigated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The new guidelines provide mariners with information on how to report cetacean sightings, a valuable source of information for researchers, say the guide’s authors.