(Hamburg/Athens – 17th February 2021) The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy has just issued an official notice informing mariners about the presence of marine mammals in the Hellenic Trench off the west coast of Greece. The new NAVTEX (NAVigational TEleX) warning instructs mariners to look out for cetaceans and avoid collisions, known as ‘ship strikes’ with them.
“This is an important first step that we have been working towards for several years now”, comments Sharon Livermore, Senior Program Manager of Marine Conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “More action is urgently needed to protect these endangered whales. Minor changes to shipping behaviour, such as steering clear of hotspot areas can prevent whales suffering from horrific injuries and painful deaths, and give this population a chance of survival.”
Saving sperm whales in the Hellenic Trench
Less than 200 endangered sperm whales of the eastern Mediterranean sub-population exist, and they live predominantly in the Hellenic Trench. Collisions with commercial vessels are a major cause of death for these animals and threaten population survival. Scientific studies show that the deaths of over 50% of stranded whales here can be attributed directly to collisions with large ships. Research in other areas also indicates that for every whale we see that has been fatally injured by a strike, there may be 20 whales with the same fate that go undetected.
“There are so many pressures on this small, endangered sub-population - the toll on these sperm whales needs to stop”, says Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, Scientific Director of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute. “We are losing too many each year. Shipping lanes can be moved away from the core habitat for these whales and in the case of the Hellenic Trench this is easy and has no cost. There are only benefits for both the whales and human society.”
“These sperm whales need our help in order to survive,” adds Amalia Alberini, cetacean conservation expert, WWF Greece. “Greece needs to fulfil its obligations of biodiversity protection under international and European legislation to ensure their conservation is prioritised”.
This ship strike initiative is promising and has the potential for meaningful cooperation between the Ministry, shipping sector and environmental organisations. The NAVTEX warning is a good intermediate step and its effectiveness needs to be monitored, while further collaboration with the International Maritime Organization on this issue has the potential to contribute significantly to the protection of this endangered species in the Hellenic Trench.