How Canada Stopped Ships From Colliding With Whales

The government, industry, and scientists worked together to devise a plan to permit shipping while protecting marine mammals.
Beluga whales swimming in Canada. (Photo: White Fox/AGF/UIG via Getty Images)
Jun 23, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

More than 8,000 ships ply the waters of the St. Lawrence River estuary in Canada each year, putting at risk beluga whales, minke whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and fin whales that frequent the waterway. Many have died from collisions.

But since 2013, there have been no whale deaths from ship strikes. That’s because instead of imposing regulations on ship owners, the government worked with the industry and scientists to develop ways to minimize collisions.

In 2011, Lael Parrott, an environmental scientist at the University of British Columbia, was working on a model to determine how whale-watching boats were affecting the marine mammals. Soon the project took on the larger issue of commercial ship strikes of whales. Parrott, along with Guy Cantin, an ocean-management team leader with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, put together a group to devise solutions that would keep the shipping lanes open but also protect the whales.

The task force included the head of the ship pilots’ association and shipping operators’ representatives. For Cantin, it was a departure from the norm. “I’ve been working for the government for many years, and usually we develop a solution inside the agencies—maybe consult experts, and then we consult the stakeholders after we come up with a solution,” he said.

The group modeled different scenarios for ships and whales. It found that slowing down ships would reduce whale strikes, but it would increase the time to cross the river, so whales would be exposed to the ships a longer time. Another idea was to have ships avoid traditional routes frequented by whales, but the group found that alternative routes would put ships in proximity to beluga birthing grounds.

The group explored the different findings and arrived at a strategy that was agreeable for everyone: Ships would voluntarily reduce their speed and avoid some areas in the St. Lawrence River estuary.

RELATED: Big Data Is Saving Whales From Ship Collisions

It worked. Ship pilots significantly reduced their speed across the area, with 72 percent of the transits in 2014 occurring at speeds less than 13.6 miles per hour, according to a new report published in the journal Solutions. The majority of ship traffic previously moved at 15 to 18 miles per hour. Data also showed that high speeds have gradually fallen, reducing the risk of fatal collisions with whales by 40 percent.

Since 2013, when the voluntary rules were set, there have been no whale strikes reported. Previously, about three collisions per year were reported on the St. Lawrence. An analysis of the local blue whale population had shown that at least 5 percent of individuals bear marks of collisions with ships.

The group could be a model for other thorny ocean issues, said Parrott and Cantin. The key is to have a small group of critical people around the table who want to be part of the process.

Other questions loom. The working group is starting to examine how ship noise affects whales, which rely on sound for navigation and foraging, Parrott said.

“We’ve been working together for five years now, and we know each other pretty well,” she said. “That makes the conversations a lot easier.”