Whale struck by bow of a large vessel.
~ Friend of the Sea Director calls it a silent massacre ~
By Daniella De Windt
PHILIPSBURG--Data of a study carried out by international sustainability programme Friend of the Sea shows that approximately 20.000 whales are killed every year due to collisions with vessels.
“This is the new issue with whales. Whaling is a small problem now compared to the mortality caused by whale/ship strikes,” Friend of the Sea Director Paolo Bray told The Daily Herald in a recent online interview.
The organisation has launched a ranking system and a Whale Safe logo to motivate shipping and cruise lines to comply with existing slowdown regulations and rapidly introduce onboard systems to further reduce the risk of ship strikes.
Due to Sint Maarten's location and the dwindling population of humpback and sperm whales in the Caribbean Sea, it is a particularly important story to share in the region, Bray explained.
Not only do the islands of St. Maarten/Saint Martin, Anguilla and Saint Barthélemy form a geological plateau that is a breeding ground for humpback and sperm whales, but the area is also a major hub for shipping, cruises and yachts, making it a high-risk area for whale/ship strikes.
Bray realised certifications could be a very important tool to achieve tangible conservation results after he launched the original Friend of the Sea logo in 2008. By means of independent audits, this certification of mainly seafood products has motivated worldwide sustainable fishery, he explained
“That is how we came up with the idea to develop a ‘Whale Safe’ logo. It made sense to try and motivate shipping companies and cruise operators to implement measures to prevent the risk of killing or disturbing whale populations while they navigate,” Bray said.
In total, there remain 12 different whale species in 23 biologically independent whale populations. However, half of these populations are endangered at some level, Bray said. Sperm whales, which also swim in St. Maarten’s waters, are the second most endangered whales in the world.
Until the late 1970s the whaling industry was the main issue for these majestic sea mammals. Today, the two major causes of whale mortality have to do with irresponsible fishing and ship strikes – each causing approximately 20,000 deaths per year, Bray said.
Why is this problem of concern? “Because some of the endangered populations, such as 800 blue whales left, can be wiped out in a few years by this level of mortality,” he explained.
For example, the number of whales in the Mediterranean Sea has diminished by more than 50 per cent over the past two to three decades. Something similar might have happened in the Caribbean Sea, Bray said.
“The available data are not very reliable, but they do tell us that the Caribbean Sea takes the fourth place in terms of whale ship strikes. The Caribbean Sea is similar to the Mediterranean Sea due to the high amount of vessel traffic in an almost enclosed sea,” he explained.
The shipping and cruise industry doubles every 10 to 20 years and its vessels continuously increase their speed. Currently, the average speed of a shipping or cruise vessel is about three times the speed a whale – 30 miles per hour compared to 12 miles per hour.
Additionally, sound pollution takes a heavy toll on the whales. “Somehow, it’s positive that they hear the vessels because they can move on time, but moving means not following their natural migration routes,” said Bray.
“The increasing presence of vessels in the various oceans – and the Caribbean Sea is no exception – can impact whales not only in terms of fatal collisions, but also in terms of modifications to their migration routes. We all know that whales migrate worldwide and there is evidence that some whales are bouncing like a flipper ball because they are scared to go close to large vessels,” Bray explained.
In doing so, whales waste a lot of energy and time trying to follow their instinctive migration routes. Sometimes they cannot make it to the spot they normally reproduce or feed due to the disturbances caused by ships.
That is why Friend of the Sea has launched a logo and ranking system to motivate companies going in the right direction by reducing the risk of whale/ship strikes and disturbances.
Some companies have already started to tackle the issue by implementing some measures to reduce the risk, Bray said.
Shipping and cruise companies can take different measures with different level of effectiveness. The most effective measure involves moving vessel routes from areas with higher risks for collision or interaction with whales.
For example, moving the route by 15 miles near Sri Lanka could reduce collisions by 94 per cent. Unfortunately, moving the lanes requires a lot of red tape, as it requires voting at the level of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Country governments can raise the issue at the IMO-level, but it remains complicated, said Bray.
The second most effective measure to reduce whale ship strikes is simply slowing down, he said. There is evidence that slowing down to 10 knots can reduce the risk of impact by at least 50 per cent. There are some worldwide slow-down areas, but these are mainly in the US and Canada, not in many other hotspots around the world where there is a higher risk of striking or disturbing whales, he added. Also, evidence shows that only some shipping or cruise operators actually comply with these areas.
“That is one of the reasons why our ranking shows that some operators have a very low score. And even those that score best do not always implement the slow-down areas. Or they comply in some areas but have not proactively and consistently tried to reduce the issue in other parts of the world.
“In other words, they potentially could slow down the vessels, but we also understand the economic drive of these companies. That is why we hope the ‘Whale Safe’ logo will eventually become the standard for the cruise and shipping businesses as the ‘Dolphin Safe’ logo has for canned tuna,” Bray said.
Other measures relate to deterrence devices such as blinkers to discourage the whales from coming close to the vessels. Propeller guards are also a requirement for the logo even though whale/ship strikes normally occur in the front of the ship.
To get the Whale Safe logo, vessels will ultimately have to comply with slow-down areas, have propeller guards and maintain a fulltime marine mammal observation programme on board to monitor area in front of vessel and alert the ship. The ship must also have planned measures in place to avoid monitored whales and must share this information on online platforms so that the vessels behind them in the same lanes can act accordingly.
The ranking system ranks the major cruise and shipping companies according to their willingness to reduce the risk of whale/ship strikes by implementing the measures mentioned. For example, shipping companies CMA CGM and MSC – both of which come to the Port of St. Maarten – scored around 60 per cent when it comes to their engagement in avoiding these strikes.
The cruise lines that frequent St. Maarten’s port receive a similar score on the organisations ranking system. For example, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean all score approximately 60 per cent when it comes to whale-safe practices.
According to the ranking, CMA CGM, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean have all recorded whale/ship strikes. However, there is only one international ship strike database produced by the International Whaling Commission, but it has not been updated for some years. The publicly available database is not very reliable, said Bray.
This has to do with the fact that it is mostly filled out by smaller vessels such as yachts or whale-watching operators. Big vessels such as cruise and container ships usually do not even realise that they hit a whale unless they return to the port with a whale carcass on the bow, explains the director.
Only 5 per cent of whale carcasses are stranded on coastlines. The other 95 per cent sink to the seabed, where they go unnoticed. “It is a silent massacre,” said Bray. “We cannot really tell unless a full-time and objective observation system is in place.”
When this newspaper spoke to Bray, Friend of the Sea was planning to reward the best cruise ship and shipping company for their efforts to reduce whale ship strikes. “We hope that this will motivate the other companies to improve. We are not pointing fingers at anybody; we simply want the operators to be collaborative,” he said.
The first two companies are on board and hopefully more will follow in 2022, Bray said. These companies scored between 66 and 68 per cent. But eventually, only the top-ranking companies will be able to receive the logo as the organisation slowly raises the bar.
“In this sense, the port authorities can also do a lot. I really hope that some ports, like St. Maarten, will positively receive this call for action and hopefully get involved at port-level, because ports can definitely start the process by introducing slow-down areas, lessening pollution and favouring operators that comply with whale-safe measures.
“I’m sure the St. Maarten port authorities are already engaged in reducing environmental impact. We are there to award those initiatives when it comes to whale safety and to provide consumers with a reference list for sustainable ports and operators,” Bray said.
The programme will increasingly lobby at IMO-level to introduce more slow-down areas, he said. “It’s a long process, but it’s something that we have to engage in quickly, because time is not on our side. We must avoid further reducing of whale populations before it’s too late.
“When I first saw the pictures of the whale carcasses on the bows of the ships, I thought they were fake. But it turned out there were hundreds of examples. Most people are not aware of the issue. Because shipping is a business-to-business industry, most consumers are not concerned about these problems. But we are getting there. Companies are realising that they must engage in these measures,” Bray concluded.
The Daily Herald reached out to Port St. Maarten Chief Executive Officer Alexander Gumbs, who preferred not to comment directly on this story due to lack of details. However, he did mention that some companies created hulls and bulbs to cause as little harm as possible.