Whale And Boat Collisions: More Common Than Thought

First Posted: Apr 24, 2017 05:00 AM EDT

Collisions of whales and boats off the coast of New England may be more common than previously believed, a team of marine scientists suggested. According to a new study, nearly 15 percent of the protected humpback whales that come to the southern Gulf of Maine to feed every spring are hit by boats and other vessels. The collisions led to injuries or scarring in the whales and also put both the sea mammals and boaters at risk.

According to the USA Today report, the analysis is based on injuries to 624 individual whales that were photographed between 2004 and 2013 -- in the waters just off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The reviewers studied 210,733 photos and found that 14.7 percent of the 624 whales had been injured by at least one vessel strike. However, the researchers feel that the numbers of injured whales are probably underestimated because the study has not included whales that were actually killed during ship collisions. The findings were published in the latest issue of Marine Mammal Science.

Activists and researchers agree that whale and boat collisions can be catastrophic, irrespective of the total injured numbers or injury level. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), which is a charity dedicated to protecting whales, whale-boat collisions are also dangerous for people on boats. A whale colliding with a boat can lead to people getting injured or even killed. Moreover, in some cases, whale and boat collisions have also led to the sinking of small vessels. At the same time, whales can die if vessels hit them in certain areas.

Previous studies have suggested that whale and boat collisions mostly occur because the large mammals are slow swimmers, swim at the surface of water and also tend to spend time in areas that overlap with heavy vessel traffic. Moreover, they are either unlikely or unable to spot oncoming vessels and therefore do not respond to the approaching ships. This makes them vulnerable to collisions.

At present, humpback whales are listed as endangered animals under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. However, currently, there are no guidelines or regulations in place for avoiding or reducing whale and boat collisions.

"Vessel strikes are a significant risk to both whales and to boaters," study lead author Alex Hill said, according to Times Colonist. "Long term studies can help us understand if our outreach programs to boaters are effective, what kind of management actions are required and help to assess the health of the population."

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