For Earth Day: Why Ships are a Growing Concern for Whales

As I and others have reported, the fin whale that washed ashore in Burien a few weeks back was probably killed when a shipping vessel struck it. As I also reported, NOAA, the agency responsible for enforcing Endangered Species Act for marine animals -- which fin whales are -- probably won’t be doing much find the boat that did the whale in: The strike probably wasn’t out of negligence or malice toward the whale, and the ship crew probably didn’t even realize it had hit the animal.

Still, everyone agrees that ship strikes are a growing killer of fin whales, and over the weekend I received a telling graph bearing out that fact. Click on the image to expand it, but here’s a snapshot of the data: Measured by decade, 2000 to 2010 off the coast of Washington was the deadliest for ship-strikes in recent history both in terms of the sheer number of whales killed by ships and as a percentage of documented whale deaths.

Researchers know 21 whales were killed in Washington waters over that 10 year period, which is probably only 10 percent or less of the true number, since the vast majority of whales struck by ships don’t wash ashore and instead disappear into the deep, John Calambokidis with the Cascadia Research Group says. His group is also responsible for the graph.

Of course, as a NOAA spokesman told me last week, there are plenty of reasons ship strikes could be rising: Higher ship traffic, whales shifting into shipping lanes, or just more whales in general to hit.

Whatever the case, NOAA isn’t too concerned for the viability of fin whales yet: There are several thousand off the coast of Washington, probably playing a mean game of chicken with boats from Asia.

 
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