Whales vs. Ships

Keeping them out of each other’s way is a complicated business:

A first-of-its-kind study matching whale habitat to Southern California shipping lanes shows that two species, humpback and fin whales, might suffer fewer ship strikes if a new lane were created.

But the solution is not quite so simple for blue whales. These giants of the sea appear to be in the most trouble from ship strikes, and would be unlikely to benefit from any change in the four shipping lanes the study considered.

The scientists who conducted the study also estimated that more blue whales are being struck off the Southern California coast than their population can sustain without raising the risk of depletion.

“At best, the blue whale population is remaining steady,” said Jessica Redfern, a marine ecologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service and the study’s lead author. “Of the three, we’re probably the most concerned about blue whales.”

All three species examined in the study are listed as endangered. The scientists used data on conditions in the marine environment, along with whale sighting records, to map out the most likely habitat for each species.

Four shipping routes were then superimposed over the habitat maps. The result: the clearest picture yet of the places on the Southern California coast where ships and whales are most likely to collide.

The findings reveal the intricate interweaving of ocean corridors used by humans and the massive sea mammals.

The route that presents the least risk to humpback whales, for example, poses the highest risk for fin whales. The reverse also is true.

Humpbacks tend to concentrate farther north, fins farther south.

“Something in the center there seems like it may be good for ameliorating the risks for both species,” Redfern said, though the study does not make specific recommendations about shifts in shipping lanes.

Blue whales, however, occur throughout the area along all four shipping routes, spread so evenly that concentrating shipping in any one of the four routes seemed unlikely to reduce their risk.

Here’s how it looks on paper:

Moving shipping lanes around, especially if it costs shipping companies money, is not an easy ask. Whales–dead or alive–don’t show up on a shipping company’s balance sheet. But shipping slowdowns and re-routing on the Atlantic coast have helped reduce some right whale deaths.

When whale populations are so fragile, and whales are so majestic and intelligent, each life saved is especially important. Shipping companies might resist, but they can pass the incremental cost on to customes. And if that induces people to buy less stuff shipped halfway around the world, then that’s not a bad thing, either.

Loving The Blue Whale Too Much

First we hunted them to near extinction, and now scientists estimate there are perhaps 25,000 blue whales left on the planet. They are magnificent creatures, and most humans hope their population will grow and thrive.

But human love for a species is often dangerous, because when humans love something they want to see it, be with it, and experience it. They put the human experience, and human desires, over the animals’ experience and the animals’ needs. Sometimes that means putting animals in zoos and marine parks. Sometimes it means invading wild habitats and disturbing natural life rhythms. And it seems that is what could be happening with blue whales, particularly in the waters off Sri Lanka (ironically because the end of a civil war is making tourism safer).

Throw in commercial shipping, which is not as deadly as actual whaling, but deadly nevertheless, and you have humans–despite their recent love for blue whales–once again putting pressure on a dwindling population.

Here’s the New York Times, putting it all together:

The problem is particularly troublesome here in Sri Lanka, where a largely unstudied population of blue whales, possibly numbering in the thousands, has come under increasing pressure from commercial shipping and from a boom in unregulated whale-watching boats.

Because these waters are poorly monitored, scientists do not know for sure whether ship strikes are on the rise. But the whale’s death in April was already the sixth of the year, according to news reports. In one grisly encounter in March, a blue whale was found draped over the bow of a container vessel in the harbor in the capital, Colombo, 90 miles north of this beach resort. Last year, some 20 whale carcasses (not all of them blue whales) were seen around the island, according to Arjan Rajasuriya, a research officer with the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency in Colombo. It is not known how many of the deaths resulted from ship strikes.

“These strikes likely represent only a portion of the likely true mortality,” said John Calambokidis, a whale researcher in Olympia, Wash., who documents ship strikes off the West Coast of the United States. Because blue whales often sink soon after they are struck, most such deaths go unrecorded, and Dr. Calambokidis says the true number “could be 10 or 20 times” the number seen.

Fifteen miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and whales are known to swim regularly inside them. But some scientists believe that the increase in whale watching could be forcing whales to seek food farther out, pushing them into the big ships’ path.

“I’m afraid the whales are being harassed by the whale-watching boats and that this could affect their movement,” said Asha de Vos, a whale researcher here.

The result, in the photo taken by Madzak Radjainia and published as part of the NY Times story, is dead whales floating near Sri Lanka, with ship strike injuries (they published a great video report as well).

Dead Blue Whale

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some day humans may gain the wisdom to realize we need to give much greater weight to the needs of other species, even if that means compromising on human desires and needs. An example would be accepting that even when we love a species we don’t have the right to disturb it in its natural habitat, and that doing so can do real harm.