Preventing ship strikes: Australia

Whale injuries and deaths from ship strikes are a problem worldwide, and one to which Australia is not immune. As humpback whales continue their successful recovery from the toll of commercial whaling in the past, they have been exposed to newer risks. For example, this population growth, combined with a massive growth in shipping around the Great Barrier Reef, is increasing the risk of ship strikes to these animals in a critical breeding and calving area. As shipping increases generally around Australia, other whales will also be exposed to greater risk. A previous Australian government administration had committed to producing a ship strike strategy, but their efforts never came to fruition.

IFAW supports improving the draft North East Shipping Management Plan which will dictate how the risk of shipping traffic through the Great Barrier Reef is managed. Currently, it barely addresses the issue of ship strikes, promising only to improve reporting and recording of incidents. While better information is crucial, this alone will not reduce the risk to whales. Proven measures like re-routing traffic to avoid whale habitat and speed restrictions to reduce the likelihood of fatal strikes need to be implemented now ahead of dramatic shipping growth.

The shipping industry in nearby New Zealand is introducing a voluntary protocol to slow down vessels moving in and out of Auckland to protect the Hauraki Gulf’s resident population of Bryde’s whales from deadly ship strikes.

These strikes have taken a heavy toll on the whales in recent years, and research by Dr Rochelle Constantine at the University of Auckland demonstrates that slowing vessels down offers the best chance of reducing fatalities.

IFAW has been involved in other efforts to alleviate the ship strike problem:

  • IFAW promotes awareness among ocean-going vessels of all types when it comes to navigating safely among whales and dolphins in our ‘Watch Out, Whales About’ programme.
  • IFAW supports programmes and legislation in other parts of the world that mitigate ship strikes. The U.S.’s  ship strike reduction rule, enacted in December 2008, restricts vessels of 65 feet or greater to speeds of 10 knots or less in seasonal management areas along the East Coast to reduce the chances of North Atlantic right whales being injured or killed by ships. The U.S. government has followed through with enforcement. In 2012, three large commercial vessels were given civil penalties for violating seasonal speed limits designed to protect one of the most endangered whale species in the world and paid these penalties in full.

IFAW and its partners unveiled a new Apple iPad and iPhone app, ‘Whale Alert’ for the East Coast of the United States that alerts mariners when endangered right whales are in the area. When alerted, vessels can slow down in compliance with regulations to prevent collisions with large ships. We hope that technology can serve as a model for other areas.