July 29, 2010

Cruise Ship Kills Young Humpback Whale in Alaska

According to news reports, the Sapphire Princess, an ship operated by Princess Cruises, struck and killed a juvenile humpback near Juneau, Alaska today. This whale’s death being caused by a recreational vessel, rather than by one in commercial shipping, highlights the increasing danger to cetaceans from ship strikes of all kinds.

Data published in a 2004 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) Technical Bulletin documented that “injuries and deaths resulting from ship collisions with whales remain a significant threat.” An analysis of ship strikes by species showed that fin whales “are the most often reported species hit (75 records of strike), followed by humpback (44 records), North Atlantic right (38 records), gray (24 records), minke (19 records), southern right (15 records), and sperm whales (17 records).” NOAA admitted that the data “may represent only a fraction of the actual number of strikes,” likely because it relied on self-reporting by the vessels involved. Most of the impacts came from commercial vessels, but cruise ships accounted for about 14% of whale strikes.

Incredibly, fatal collisions between ships and whales occurred even in three National Marine Sanctuaries: Stellwagen Bank (humpback, fin, and right whales), Channel Islands (gray and several
unidentified whales), and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale sanctuary (humpback whales). 68% of whales included in the NOAA data died from the impacts.

U.S. shipping lanes were moved to address whales only in 2008 and only in one sanctuary. Nearly 5,000 ships transit the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, home to endangered finback, humpback, and right whales, each year. Adding just ten to twenty minutes, depending on ship speed, to the travel time through the sanctuary allowed vessels to avoid the places where whales are most likely to cross. Estimates put the reduction in risk to cetaceans at around 81%.

Shipping lanes for cruises should be moved similarly. Economic barriers are often cited as arguments against rerouting sea lanes for whales—the need to move goods to market as fast as possible is offered as a compelling reason to risk the lives of critically endangered marine mammals. Such logic, however, isn’t really applicable to changing ship traffic in the cruise injury. Passengers—who probably book passages to places like Alaska hoping to see whales—would likely accept surcharges needed to offset slight increases in fuel costs, or be willing to shorten their voyages by an hour or so to allow a wide berth around whales. If sightings are from a greater distance, the knowledge that the very creatures contributing to the wonder of the trip remain alive to see should bring sufficient comfort to avoid impacting reservations.

Related Web Resources
AP, Cruise Ship Strikes Whale in Alaska, July 28, 2010.
NOAA, Large Whale Ship Strike Database (Jan. 2004).
EarthSky, David Wiley on Moving Shipping Lanes to Save Whales (Aug. 18, 2008).

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