It seems every week there is news of another whale being stranded and washing up on a beach somewhere. There are several reasons. First, there are just more whales out there.
The number of deaths corresponds with a growing population of whales in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.
According to the Endangered Species Coalition, there have been efforts from around the world to help save humpback whales from extinction. Because of this, close to 80,000 of these whales have been found in waters, which is a big increase from their former population of under 15,000.
Human interaction is the main cause of whale strandings. The necropsy report on the latest whale killed in Virginia Beach found the cause of death to be blunt force trauma, which indicates the whale was hit by a passing vessel.
NOAA performed necropsies on about half the whales and found that of those, 40% of the deaths were caused by human interaction, either being caught in fishing gear or struck by vessels.
Why so many ship strikes?
Whales and humans share the shipping lanes that run from Cape Cod down to the Virginia Cape. The whale’s habitat and migration routes are close to major ports and often overlap with shipping lanes. If you look at the average depth of the lanes, you will see they are around 50ft. That’s fairly shallow, and given that whales mainly travel underwater, the ships never see them. An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has a 31ft draft and 9000 lbs of displacement. Even at reduced speed, a whale strike is not going to end well.
NOAA Fisheries has taken many actions to help reduce vessel strikes:
- Establishing vessel speed restrictions in parts of the U.S. eastern seaboard during certain times of the year to reduce the threat of vessel collisions to North Atlantic right whales.
- Working with the U.S. Coast Guard to establish recommended vessel routes and approaches to ports to reduce the overlap of whales and ships.
- Establishing temporary precautionary zones, called Dynamic Management Areas, around recently sighted right whale groups in which mariners are asked to reduce speed or steer clear of the area.
- Alerting vessel and watercraft operators to the dangers to whales of collisions.
- Developing and implementing “approach” regulations and guidance for operating vessels around whales in a number of regions.
- Developing and distributing written material, placards, brochures, interactive CDs, and posting signs in marinas to alert mariners to safe practices around whales.
- Developing and implementing Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems with the U.S. Coast Guard. Ships are required to report to a shore-based station when entering key right whale habitats, and in return they receive a message about whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, precautionary measures ships can take to avoid hitting one, and locations of recent sightings. The systems were endorsed by the International Maritime Organization, a specialized organization of the United Nations.
- Working with partners to modify shipping routes at a number of heavily used ports in U.S. waters to minimize overlap and chances of ship collisions with blue, fin, humpback, and right whales and other species.
- Tracking of vessel strike occurrence through carcass examinations by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
- Supporting apps and tools that provide information to mariners and ships about where whales are located:
- WhaleWatch—alerts ship operators to areas where U.S. West Coast blue whales are aggregating.
- Whale Alert—smartphone app for fishermen, recreational boaters, industry partners, and volunteer networks to share real-time whale sightings in Alaska.
- Tracking of vessel strike occurrence through the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.
- Strandings of sea turtles with injuries caused by vessel strikes are tracked in coastal areas to understand the frequency of collisions and risk factors.
- Promoting awareness.
Here are some tips for everyone to avoid collisions:
- Keep a sharp lookout. Look for blows, dorsal fins, flukes, etc.
- Watch your speed in areas of known whale or turtle occurrence. Keeping speeds to 10 knots or less can reduce potential for injury.
- Keep your distance. If you see a whale or turtle, stay at least 100 yards away.
- Slow your boat immediately and put in it neutral if you see a whale or turtle. Resume at a slow, safe speed and distance your vessel from the animal.
Report marine life in distress
Immediately report an injured, entangled, stranded, or dead marine animal to your local stranding network. These networks are located around the country in all coastal states.
Report a violation
NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline, (800) 853-1964, provides live operator coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone in the United States to report a federal marine resource violation. During regular business hours, you also can contact your closest NOAA Office of Law Enforcement field office to report possible violations.
NOAA has also developed guidelines for viewing marine life to ensure their safety.
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