Whales, Commerce and Conservation
Racing the incoming tide, the scientists propped a ladder against the smooth, slick flank of the 35-foot whale, and swarmed over it to make the first of many cuts that would provide clues to its death. They are the necropsy team, trained to perform forensic examinations of beachcast whales. Using traditional whaler’s flensing knives, they cut through skin, blubber and muscle to lay bare her fractured skull, ribs and vertebrae. An exhaustive post-mortem examination would reveal the whale’s condition – sleek, fat and healthy, up to the moment of her death. Quickly, deftly, the team carried out its somber task. The data they gathered will also provide important insights into these creatures, and how they are faring in a changing ocean.
This spring brought us abundant whales, but it brought tragedy, too. Onshore winds and currents, strong and persistent, were the likely cause of an unusual cluster of beachcast whales discovered on the shores of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and nearby waters, from early May to mid-June. Five of the seven that stranded died from collisions with ships. Normally, dead whales remain floating offshore until they sink, never to be detected. This spring’s cluster did not necessarily reflect an increase in ship strike rate; more likely, it reflected an increase in detection rate, due to currents and wind. Nonetheless, it was a grim reminder that our efforts to reduce this major cause of whale deaths must continue: three of the five fatalities were endangered blue and fin whales.
Despite federal protections and shipping lane changes, several local species have still not recovered from the hunting that continued here until the early 1970s. Even now, their return to pre-whaling levels is not absolutely assured, since new threats, like fast-moving ships, debilitating ocean noise, pollution and other impacts have emerged.
Each year, ships weighing over 300 gross tons make an average of 8,000 transits through the Golden Gate. Our region’s economy is largely based on activities that in some manner are connected with our ocean and estuaries. Manufacturing, petroleum refining, agriculture, fisheries, and other industries rely on shipping as an efficient and economical means of transporting goods to ports around the globe. Just outside the Golden Gate their routes take them through the feeding grounds of several still-endangered whale species.
Vessel-based commerce will continue, however. How, then, do we manage conflicts between wildlife and human activities? We know that whales suffer from changing environmental factors and human impacts. We cannot control the whales’ behavior, but we can change our actions, and develop creative coalitions; lately, commerce has proven a promising partner.
Since 2014, in a spirit of “share the road,” Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries have enlisted the shipping industry’s help in preventing collisions by voluntarily slowing ships to 10 knots (about 11.5 mph) or slower in the busy vessel traffic lanes outside the Golden Gate, May through November. This collaboration between NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, shippers, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and NGOs builds on decades of research by the sanctuaries’ ACCESS cruises and other NOAA research cruises on the whales’ distribution patterns during their foraging seasons, and vessel traffic patterns. Slowing ships may provide a critical few more seconds for evasive action; and if a collision does occur, at slower speeds it is less likely to be fatal. Not only do whales benefit: ships run more efficiently at slower speeds, resulting in reduced greenhouse gas and particulate emissions, improving air quality for everyone.
To date, the results have been encouraging. Recently, the Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones marine sanctuaries recognized 13 shipping firms’ cooperation in slowing their fleets while transiting key whale habitats. We hope to strengthen and expand such partnerships between commerce and conservation. Ultimately, other industries may follow suit, building into their corporate ethic sustainability -- not just for our own species, but for others as well.