WHALE STRIKES: Scientists concerned at growing number of fatal collisions

Scientists observing whales and other cetaceans off the eastern seaboard of the United States are becoming extremely concerned at the increased number of whale deaths from collisions with ships plying the Transatlantic trade routes, according to a recent report by news blog Huffington Post.

This month a cruise ship heading towards New York struck a whale of indeterminate species, killing it on impact. The ship dragged the whale’s corpse into the Hudson river, which separates New York city from New Jersey. This has been part of a higher than normal number of fatal incidents this year already, according to a briefing from a federal government agency and accessed by Associated Press reporters. As reported from the federal government’s figures, three incidents of whale strikes have occurred off the east coast of America recently. One of the incidents involved another cruise ship that struck a rare sei whale and carried its corpse coastwards. The mammal’s body was not noticed until the ship docked, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Another sei whale died in a collision with a container ship and was found tangled around the ship’s hull upon arriving at a port in the eastern state of Pennsylvania, somewhere near Philadelphia, the NOAA said.

 Scientists believe that a spike in the volume of food resources such as crustaceans and fishes close to the coastline are attracting more whales to feed on them, thus increasing the likelihood of fatal ship-whale interactions. The increased food supply has been cited by observers in neighbouring Massachusetts state for the higher than average number of humpback whale sightings reported there. Off the coast of the state’s capital Boston, large quantities of a type of fish known as sea lance have been counted. Sea lances are a popular food source for the state’s visiting whales. Local wildlife experts have commented on groups of whales turning up at the Massachusetts Bay and feeding liberally, said Laura Howes of Boston Harbor Cruises, a local cruise holiday firm.

A Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), a m...
A Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), a member of order Cetacea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maritime agencies and shipping companies in the United States are working together to warn mariners of the risk of colliding with whales, some of the largest animals to roam the seas. A blue whale can reach 100 feet (30-35 metres) in length and weigh up to 200 tonnes, according to a recently broadcast programme on UK television. Seamen and women are being reminded to follow and respect speed limits and keep their distances from known whale feeding grounds. Most ships are banned from coming within 500 yards of a right whale according to a university-based whale observation project.

 “Nobody wants to hit a whale,” said Marjorie Mooney-Seus, a NOAA spokesperson. “So we want people to have a greater awareness that they’re out there now.

 Under usual conditions, one whale dies in a collision at sea once every few weeks, usually during migration along the coastline or when relatively stationary as they hunt fish or gather krill. The NOAA counted 28 such incidents in the waters off the north-eastern U.S. between the years 2006 and 2010. The international picture for cetacean fatalities is even grimmer.  A National Marine Fisheries Service survey covering the period from 1975 to 2002 found 292 records of confirmed or possible ship strikes to large whales. Whales struck by ships can suffer massive damage to internal organs and bleed to death. Others come into contact with ship propellers and suffer severe outer damage, including severed fins, deep gashes, and even crushed skulls. A container ship can weigh up to 90,000 tonnes and travel at 15 miles per hour or more on the open sea.

 A necropsy (a type of autopsy) was performed by scientists on the whale killed off New York. Its death was listed as being caused by ‘blunt force’, which meant that its death was certainly caused by the ship, Mooney-Seus said in her interview with the Huffington Post. The other two victim’s bodies were not retrieved for necropsies. Despite the increase in whale strikes, the NOAA said that for now, there are no heightened dangers to populations of the rarer species that frequent the North American coastline, including the local subspecies of right whale, whose population is on a steady rise after decades of destructive commercial whaling.

 On the Huffington Post article, commentators have voiced disapproval of the scientists’ understanding of the increasing number of whale-ship collisions. One, commenting under the Facebook account of a group called the Deafwhale Society, accused scientists of being ignorant and complacent in their studying of whale deaths. He claimed that scientist were simply assuming that the struck East Coast whales were asleep when in fact the loud sounds of the ships would have caused confusion to the whales’ sonar detection, making them panic and flee. He claims that the whales who were killed were deaf, and thus unable to hear the ship’s movement and react. Another commentator, Lauren Duncan, however, says that scientists on the American west coast have proposed making changes to shipping lanes to avoid whale breeding grounds, but that their suggestions have so far fallen on deaf ears. One other commentator questioned whether mariners were really making efforts to avoid collisions with whales and were possibly responsible for hitting larger numbers of the animals far out at sea without noticing or reporting the collisions.

 The Right Whale Listening Project, a U.S. whale research project with the the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology states that between the years 1970 and 2007, ships were responsible for killing a third of the right whales (24 out of 67) found dead in American waters.


HEM News Agency, The Half-Eaten Mind, Twitter LINK
HuffPost Green, Twitter LINK
“Whales Keep Getting Hit By Ships Along The East Coast, Troubling Scientists” – Jim Fitzgerald & Paige Sutherland, Associated Press & Huff Post Green/HPMG News/TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc. (23 May 2014) LINK
“Ship strikes – Threats to Right Whales” – Right Whale Listening Network – Bioacoustics Research Program, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology LINK
“File:Humpback Whale underwater shot.jpg” – U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration & Wikimedia modifiers, Wikimedia Commons (22 March 2013) LINK




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