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B.C. researcher urges shipping industry to slow down in Arctic to protect belugas and bowhead whales

B.C. researcher urges shipping industry to slow down in Arctic to protect belugas and bowhead whales
Wanyee Li May 4, 2018

Whales such as the southern resident killer whales in B.C. and belugas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are struggling to survive. Researchers say the same could happen to their northern cousins if the shipping industry does not act now.

VANCOUVER—A B.C. researcher is urging the shipping industry to adopt a voluntary measures meant to protect whales from vessel collisions and ship noise along Arctic routes.

Those routes are ice-free for longer periods of time every year due to climate change, opening up the possibility of increased ship traffic. The western Arctic region is home to a healthy population of belugas and bowhead whales in the summer months, but they face a bleak future if more ships start using those waters without taking measures to protect marine wildlife, said Lauren McWhinnie, a University of Victoria researcher.

“So far, ice being there has limited the vessel traffic that occurs there, but our concerns are that as sea ice reduces, this area will become subject to more vessel traffic,” the geographer said in an interview. “For belugas, evidence suggests that noise is a big disruptor for them. For right whales, we know that ship strikes are a big impact.”

Fuel spills and fishing-gear entanglement also pose a danger to the whales, she said.

Struggling beluga and right whale populations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have failed to recover this year, even after the federal government passed new laws last summer on vessel speed in the region in order to protect the species.

That’s why McWhinnie wants the shipping industry to take a proactive approach in the Arctic, where belugas and bowhead whales – which are biologically similar to right whales – are still flourishing.

She and a team of researchers analyzed 14 different vessel-policy tools around the world and found voluntary measures such as slow-down zones and vessel-noise monitoring had fairly high rates of participation.

The Port of Vancouver asked ships in the Haro Strait to slow down to 11 knots from August to October last year in order to assess whether a permanent speed restriction could help the southern resident killer whales in the region. That population has been dropping dramatically since the 80s and now has just 78 individuals. An interim report shows 60 per cent of vessels participated in the voluntary slow down.