On a collision course in the Great Barrier Reef?

Friday, 4 July, 2014

As humpback whales arrive in the Great Barrier Reef to give birth to their young, a new report released today by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) shows that these whales are at increasing danger from collisions with coal ships and other vessels.


IFAW analysed shipping traffic in key whale habitats in the reef showing major overlap between shipping routes and humpback whale nurseries. The analysis shows most ships travelling at speeds, which even though relatively slow at 12 – 14 knots or 22 - 26kmph, would likely kill a whale as a result of a collision.


“Like pedestrian injuries on roads, speed is a key factor in whether a whale survives being hit, with small decreases in speed dramatically decreasing the likelihood of a whale being killed. IFAW wants to work with authorities and mariners to introduce ‘whale zones’, where ship speed limits are introduced in areas where whales are most at risk of being hit. Ship speed restrictions have been used successfully elsewhere in the world to reduce whale deaths,” said Sharon Livermore, IFAW’s Marine Campaigner.


“People assume because whales are large creatures, they are easily seen. However, the majority of these ships are massive cargo vessels which can be up to 300 metres long, so they may not notice the impact if they accidently hit even something as big as an 18 metre whale,” said Ms Livermore.


Until now, ship strikes have gone largely unrecognised and unreported, with many mariners unaware of the legal requirement to report an incident. The relative lack of reports is likely to significantly under-represent the threat they pose. Even if not killed instantly, whales can be left with horrendous injuries, such as severed spines, fins and tail flukes and internal haemorrhaging, which can lead to them suffering prolonged and painful deaths.


IFAW warns of the increasing dangers whales face in Australian waters, if mariners and whales don’t find a way to co-exist. With massive growth in shipping projected due to Queensland port expansions and with humpback whales continuing to recover from the impacts of commercial whaling, the problem of ship strikes is only going to increase. It is estimated that by 2020, shipping passages through the reef will double to 8,500 transits, or a total of 23 journeys a day through critically important whale habitat. With the humpback whale population growing at a rate of around 11 percent a year, it’s not a question of when but of how many collisions and whale deaths will occur.


“It’s crucial that we take action now to protect whales in their main east coast calving grounds, before this problem grows. By finding a solution now that allows marine mammals and mariners to travel safely in the Great Barrier Reef, we will avoid more whales dying in the future.  The shipping industry has responded well around the world to efforts to protect whales and we hope our report starts a dialogue on this issue here in Australia,” said Ms Livermore.

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