Boats may be hitting whales in Gulf of Maine more often, study suggests



A group of marine scientists says collisions of whales and boats off the New
England coast may be more common than previously thought.

The scientists focused on the humpback whale population in the southern Gulf
of Maine, a body of water off Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. They
found that almost 15 percent of the whales, which come to New England to
feed every spring, had injuries or scarring consistent with at least one
vessel strike.

The researchers, who published their findings in the March issue of the
journal Marine Mammal Science, said the work shows that the occurrence of
such strikes is most likely underestimated. They also said their own figure
is likely low because it does not account for whales that are killed in ship

“Vessel strikes are a significant risk to both whales and to boaters,” said
Alex Hill, the lead author of the study, who is a scientist with the
conservation group Whale and Dolphin Conservation in Plymouth,
Massachusetts. “Long-term studies can help us figure out if our outreach
programs to boaters are effective, what kind of management actions are
needed and help to assess the health of the population.”

Other scientists have also studied whether ship strikes have the ability to
negatively affect whale populations, and the subject is a source of some

While researchers are not sure how much such collisions affect whales, they
are suggesting that marine managers develop strategies to minimize whale
strikes. Lauren Kante/Whale and Dolphin Conservation via AP

A 2014 study of 171 blue whales in the eastern North Pacific that appeared
in PLOS ONE stated that modifications to shipping lanes could “reduce the
likelihood of collisions with vessels.” But a study that appeared in Marine
Mammal Science that same year said mitigating ship strikes would have a
minimal impact on the blue whales.

Off Alaska, 25 of 108 reported whale collisions that occurred between 1978
and 2011 resulted in the animal’s death, according to a 2012 report in the
Journal of Marine Biology.

For the Gulf of Maine study, the authors reviewed more than 200,000 photos
of 624 individual humpback whales over a nine-year period to evaluate them
for injuries and trauma, the conservation group said. The group is
recommending that marine managers develop a strategy for vessels that
transit near whales to minimize collisions.

Dave Wiley, a research coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine
Sanctuary, said the paper could indeed inform regulations for federal
managers. Wiley, who was not involved in the study, said it was
“troublesome” to see the rate of strikes so high.

Scott Kraus, chief scientist for marine mammals at the New England Aquarium,
was slightly more skeptical. Kraus, who also was not involved in the study,
said the level of ship strikes could be overestimated in the paper because
of the way the authors interpret scars and markings on humpback whales.
However, Kraus said the findings are still valid.

“There are a lot of whales getting hit by small vessels, and there may very
well need to be some management actions around high-density whale areas,” he

Marine scientists say 15 percent of humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine bear
injuries or scarring consistent with at least one vessel strike.


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