Ship Strikes with Animals More Common as Boating Grows

Many collisions can be avoided if boaters slow down and keep watch

Just this July, off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts, a whale breached a pleasure craft (click link to see video). The video is startling and illustrates how these collisions damage animals, vessels and their inhabitants.

Mariners call these incidents “ship strikes” or “vessel strikes.” A vessel strike is a collision between any type of boat and any type of marine animal, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish, seals, sharks, sea otters, penguins or sea lions. About 75 marine species are affected.

This screen grab from the animal/boat strike incident off Plymouth shows the whale crashing onto the front deck of the boat.

Vessel strikes are getting to be common:

  • According to research carried out by the non-profit Friends of the Sea, ship strikes kill more than 20,000 whales every year. This is an alarming number, especially considering how close to extinction some species (such as the North Atlantic right whale) already are. 
  • Between 20%-30% of sea turtles in Florida show injuries consistent with vessel strikes.
  • In Florida, about 90 manatees a year die from boat strikes.

Why the increase in animal strikes?

Simply put, animal strikes by mariners are more common because there are more boats. 

Since the 1890s, ships with gross tonnage above 100 tons have increased from 11,000 to 94,000 in 2020. Growing commercial shipping is now joined by growing fleets of cruise ships, which are also big contributors to animal strikes. In fact, between 2009 and 2019, the number of cruise ship passengers increased from 17.8 million to 30 million, nearly double. In addition, the number of recreational vessels is growing, with 12 million boaters registered in 2020 in the U.S. alone.

Global Trade Routes in 2012, from shipmap.org. A 2020 map is similar. 
The graphic above shows the busy trade routes plying the oceans and coasts, leaving very few sanctuaries for marine life.

What can be done to avoid animal strikes?

The short answer as to how ships can avoid animal strikes is that there is no one answer. Some shipping companies place observers on deck to scout whale sightings and radio the captain to alter course. Other vessels have experimented with various sonar sounds, but the sounds end up attracting as many animals as they repel.

To prevent whale strikes, NOAA Fisheries created special routes where whale sightings are lower. Some smartphone apps, such as WhaleWatch and WhaleAlert, share real-time whale sightings. The Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network tracks injuries to sea turtles that collide with ships when coming up for air, hoping that their public information will help reduce strikes.

For now, mitigation strategies involve keeping vessels away from marine animals (and away from waters with crustacean abundance, where whales feed), reducing speed and promoting awareness among vessel operators.

But individual mariners can make a difference. Through awareness and caution, they can do a better job of seeing and avoiding animal strikes. NOAA Fisheries recommends:

  • Always be alert and vigilant on the water
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to better see marine animals
  • Follow speed zones and other signage
  • Slow transit when operating in areas where large sea animals live or feed

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