Avoiding the collision course

Attitudes about collisions between whales and vessels have changed drastically since this account from a newspaper in 1891. Rather than sensational, we now view such incidents as tragic, and internationally, vessel strikes are recognized as a potential threat to whale populations.

Worldwide, the main species affected by vessel collisions are fin whales, followed by humpback, northern right, gray, minke, sperm, southern right and blue whales. During the last two centuries of whaling almost all of these species were brought to the brink of extinction.

The recovery of these species and their local populations has varied considerably from place to place. Many populations of these whales are still dangerously small (e.g., northern right, western grey, blue whales). For these small populations, vessel collision is primarily an issue of conservation. But, it is also an animal welfare and ethical issue. This is particularly relevant for populations such as the Australian humpback whale which, while showing strong recovery from commercial whaling, is still impacted by vessel strike. Ironically, their healthy return towards pre-whaling numbers is likely to make vessel strikes more common in the future due to more whales being in the ocean.

In addition to the immense changes experienced by whale populations over the last 100 years, worldwide shipping has also seen extensive change over this same period. Shipping is the life blood of modern economies, connecting and providing the mass transportation for over 80 percent of global goods and resources. Consequently, there has been a massive increase in the overall volume of global shipping traffic. For example, the number of vessels in the worldwide merchant fleet has increased by 13 percent in the last seven years (UNCTAD 2018) and future projections show this growth will continue. There have also been considerable changes in the size, type, and speed of vessels. This is relevant to vessel strike as different vessels have different risk profiles.

This change is reflected in our collated data of vessel strikes in Australian waters which showed a steady increase in the average length of vessels colliding with whales between 1890 and 1950. Interestingly, fewer reports of large vessel collisions were made after the 1950s. This is possibly because there are fewer crew on-board the newer vessels, raising the important question of how many collisions are going unnoticed.

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