Legislation Seeks to Minimize Vessel Strikes on Whales

Too many species of whales in U.S. waters are barely hanging on. North Atlantic right whales, Southern Resident orcas, and even the newly identified Gulf of Mexico (Rice’s) whale are critically endangered, meaning their very existence on this planet is in jeopardy. For each of these species, ships and other vessels are a primary source of mortality and harm.

A humpback whale with a severe injury after being struck by a ship.

NOAA, under MMHSRP permit #923-1489.

The Oceans-Based Climate Solutions Act, legislation led by Chairman Raul Grijalva, puts forward smart and proven solutions to make our seas safer for whales. It maximizes opportunities for ships and whales to co-exist by protecting whales from ship strikes. It also focuses investment in new programs to reduce underwater noise from vessels and seeks to reduce the carbon pollution that is radically altering the climate and the ocean.

Each year, dozens of large whales are struck by ships and other vessels transiting their habitats. The North Atlantic right whale, due to its dwindling numbers, can’t sustain the loss of even one individual per year if it is to avoid extinction. Yet three calves have been killed or seriously injured after being struck by vessels just since January 2020. The story is the same in the Gulf of Mexico, where at least two Gulf of Mexico whales have been found with evidence of vessel collision. Numbering fewer than 50 individuals, this small population is one of the most vulnerable whale species on earth.

While vessel strikes are not a primary threat to the iconic Southern Resident orcas, the underwater noise pollution and disturbance from heavy vessel traffic is. Orcas hunt using special vocalizations, but ship and boat noise shrinks the space over which orcas can hear, undermining their ability to find food in critical habitat. Vessel noise and disturbance is considered one of three threats responsible for the orcas’ failure to recover.

The good news is that a relatively simple solution is available to significantly reduce ship strike mortality risk, moderate underwater noise pollution, and even lead to less greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution: slowing ships down.

The Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act embraces this elegant solution by directing NOAA to put in place vessel restrictions like speed limits in habitat areas that are important to whales. Studies have shown that the probability of a lethal injury to endangered right whales decreased by 50-80% when large vessels slowed to 10 knots. And in the Pacific Northwest, slowing vessels to around 11 knots was shown to cut underwater noise levels in orca foraging habitat by half. The bill gives NOAA flexibility to set appropriate vessel restrictions in the areas and seasons when whales are most vulnerable to ship strikes and disturbance.  

The bill invests in innovative new techniques capable of locating whales and mitigating harmful activities in real-time. Technologies like acoustic monitoring, autonomous vessels, and drones can deliver near real-time information on the location of marine mammals. The bill would give NOAA the necessary resources to establish a first-of-its-kind monitoring and mitigation program to deploy technologies capable of detecting whales and directly informing mitigation measures in near real-time. For example, the program could alert a vessel when whales are nearby, allowing the captain to make adjustments to avoid them. The program would begin with a pilot effort focused on the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, and then expand to other species and geographies once the approach is proven.

The bill also puts in place a nationwide slow steaming incentive program, awarding Quiet Seas and Clear Skies Excellence Awards to shipping fleets that embrace slow steaming throughout the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (which extends 200 miles from shore), to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and moderate underwater noise pollution. If shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, larger than Germany. The Clean Shipping Coalition reported that a 20% reduction in speed across the global fleet would reduce the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 34%, black carbon by 20%, particulate emissions by 34%, and underwater noise levels by 66%.

The latter is significant, as underwater noise from ships doubled each decade between 1950 and 2000, and the swelling global shipping fleet means the problem continues to get worse. Noise emitted from ships negatively impacts marine life around the globe, and interferes with communication, hunting, navigation, and other critical functions of whales.  

The Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act invests in important new programs to address underwater noise pollution from ships. It would create a competitive grant fund to assist ports in establishing or expanding programs that reduce threats to marine mammals. The waters around seaports see significant vessel traffic, as vessels routinely transit in and out of port. Many seaports are located in coastal waters that support important feeding, breeding, and migratory habitats for marine mammals. Ports can play a significant role in minimizing interactions between vessels and marine mammals. For example, the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma are launching Quiet Sound, a program to reduce vessel noise and disturbance on endangered Southern Resident orcas, based on the successful ECHO program run by Canada’s Port of Vancouver.

The bill would also invest in new government programs focused on technological innovations to quiet ships and expand NOAA’s underwater noise monitoring network to enable better conservation and management of whales and other marine mammals.

Importantly, the bill also gives NOAA new tools to respond to and address the impacts to marine mammals from the climate crisis. In every region of the country, climate change is putting the future of these species at risk. Already we are seeing whales losing habitat, stranding from malnourishment, and moving into waters where they are unprotected. Addressing these consequences will help individuals and populations more effectively adapt to a rapidly changing ocean.

The bill also requires large ships calling on U.S. ports to self-report their greenhouse gas and particulate emissions. For the United States to accurately track and account for its carbon emissions, we need a monitoring, reporting, and verification system for the maritime sector. The bill puts such a system in place and ensures that annual reporting on the sector’s emissions is publicly available.

As our colleague Valerie Cleland explains, the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act recognizes the ocean is a powerful tool in fighting the climate crisis, and it puts forward a comprehensive roadmap to protect it. By implementing a full suite of ocean-based climate solutions, the legislation would bolster frontline communities most at risk from climate change, increase the resilience of ocean ecosystems, and demonstrate much-needed leadership in the global effort to address the climate crisis.

NRDC thanks Chairman Grijalva and the 25 original co-sponsors of the bill for crafting legislation that, if adopted, will give our great whales and other marine mammals a chance to survive alongside our shipping economy.