A wounded whale, with a U shape in its back, floating in the water

Research groups sound alarm after three whales reportedly struck by ships off West Coast

An alarming trend to watch:

Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Three whales were reportedly struck by vessels in northern B.C. waters over a 10-day period last month, raising West Coast humpback researchers’ concerns over the risk shipping poses to the marine mammals.

The first report involved a BC Ferries vessel, the Northern Expedition, colliding with a whale in Wright Sound near Kitimat on July 20, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) confirmed.

A second incident on July 21 involved a boat that transports workers to Alcan’s Rio Tinto mine in Kitimat. And a cruise ship struck a whale in Hecate Strait between Haida Gwaii and the B.C. mainland on July 29, DFO said. 

No other details about the incidents were available from DFO before Canada’s National Observer’s publication deadline.

Whale research groups on the B.C. coast are getting piecemeal reports about the three incidents but weren’t aware of or alerted to the incidents when they happened, said Jackie Hildering of the Marine Education and Research Society. 

Any vessel that hits a whale must report it to the DFO. However, there’s no policy or protocol for vessels involved or DFO to relay information in a timely way to other groups that monitor whales — which are often operating in nearby waters and able to respond to incidents more quickly, Hildering said.

When research groups and First Nations guardian programs don’t get key information about the incidents when they happen, it’s a missed opportunity to capture data crucial to protecting whales into the future, she said. 

Shipping traffic and humpback whale populations are both on the rise — often in the same areas — escalating the risk of vessel strikes to humpbacks, the greatest threat to the species of special concern along with entanglements in fishing gear.

A timely sharing of information on vessel strikes among industry, DFO, Transport Canada, research groups and Indigenous guardians can go a long way to devising strategies to better protect whales and boaters alike, she said. 

“Nobody ever wants to hit a whale,” Hildering stressed.

“But it’s not acceptable to just accept [whale deaths] as collateral damage.

“There’s so much we can do, and the core of that is learning all we can about these accidents.” 

Janie Wray, CEO of the North Coast Cetacean Society (BC Whales), agreed, noting the research team and the Gitga’at Guardians could have had boats on the water quickly to respond to the vessel strikes in the waters around Kitimat. 

“It’s so important for a number of different reasons,” Wray said. 

“We could determine whether the whale survived or the level of injury.” 

The research group and the Gitga’at Guardians were informed about a dead whale floating in nearby waters on July 30, but by the time they heard about it and responded, they couldn’t locate the mammal, Wray said. 

Confirming and identifying a whale fatality also helps determine impacts on the local population and allows researchers to secure the carcass for DFO for a necropsy and analysis, she said. 

Understanding other details like vessel speed, size, weather conditions and location of the strike are all important to determine hot spots of concern where whales and ships are most often coming into contact. 

“Those are all parts of the equation, with the whole idea being to reduce the risk of vessel strikes to whales, especially in some areas along the coast where we know we have high populations,” she said.

With open lines of communication, large vessels moving in and out of areas with high whale concentrations around Kitimat could reach out to the Fin Island research station and the Gitga’at Guardians in Hartley Bay for information about where whales are active so they can take measures to avoid collisions, Wray said.

Not only do the two groups monitor whales visually, but their joint acoustic monitoring project, SWAG, uses underwater hydrophones to pinpoint the location of whales even if the weather is poor or they aren’t visible at the water’s surface, she said. 

“When fin or humpback whales and orca are vocalizing, we can actually locate where that whale is within almost real-time,” she said. 

Collective alerts about vessel strikes, in addition to gathering crucial scientific data, have emotional and cultural value for groups striving to protect marine mammals, she added.

“These humpbacks mean a lot to us,” Wray said.

“There are individuals we’ve been following for 20 years, and when there’s been a loss to that community, we want to know who it is.” 

The ship strike danger for humpbacks and other whales in B.C.’s northern waters and the Kitimat Fiord is already significant and is going to get worse as the LNG Canada shipping terminal comes online in 2025, said Hussein Alidina, marine conservation lead for WWF-Canada. 

On average, four vessel strikes already occur annually in the region’s waters, and that’s likely a conservative number, Alidina said. 

“There’s many more that are happening and just not being reported,” he said. 

Research suggests two fin whales and 18 humpback whales could die each year from ship strikes once LNG tankers start plying the region’s waters, said Alidina, who participated in the recent study

That level of loss would reverse the recovery of whale populations on the rebound over the last couple of decades since industrial whaling ended. 

Devising mitigation strategies or safety zones where whales are known to concentrate and overlap with shipping traffic is necessary regionally and along the length of the B.C. coast. 

The quickest and most effective tool for reducing the risk to whales is reducing vessel speed, he stressed, noting similar efforts are already occurring elsewhere on the coast, in Canada and California. 

“We know speed is lethal to whales,” he said. 

“Slowing ships is one immediate thing we could start doing.” 

Speed reductions have the added benefit of reducing noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from ships, he added. 

The ECHO program, a collaborative initiative involving the Port of Vancouver, industry partners, First Nations, the research community, and government aims to reduce shipping speeds and noise pollution and alert mariners to the presence of whales to protect endangered southern resident killer whales. The program is one model that could be modified to protect other species and used along the length of the coast, Alidina said. 

“One of the beauties of the ECHO program was they were able to democratize that process for the stakeholders and get interest from industry [and] conservation groups,” he said. 

“It collaboratively built trust and working relationships, and we were able to get the outcomes we all were seeking.” 

Vessels, boaters or commercial fishers that hit a whale or see a marine mammal in distress should make a report to DFO’s Marine Mammal Incident Reporting Hotline at 1-800-465-4336.

Top image credit: A humpback named Moon was documented by the BC Whales research group in northern B.C. waters last September with a severe injury to her spine likely caused by a vessel strike – Photo courtesy North Coast Cetacean Society

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: