Mortality from collisions with vessels is one of the main human causes of death for large whales. Ship strikes are rarely witnessed and the distribution of strike risk and estimates of mortality remain uncertain at best. We estimated ship strike mortality for blue humpback and fin whales in U.S. West Coast waters using a novel application of a naval encounter model. Mortality estimates from the model were far higher than current minimum estimates derived from stranding records and are closer to extrapolations adjusted for detection probabilities of dead whales. Our most conservative model estimated mortality to be 8.9x, 1.5x and 2.9x the U.S. recommended limit for blue, humpback and fin whales, respectively, suggesting that death from vessel collisions may be a significant impediment to population growth and recovery. Comparing across the study area, the majority of strike mortality occurs in waters off California, from Bodega Bay south and tends to be concentrated in a band approximately 24 nm offshore and in designated shipping lanes leading to and from major ports. While mortality risk is widespread, 74%, 88% and 65% of blue, humpback and fin whale mortality, respectively, occurs in just 10% of the study area, suggesting conservation efforts can be very effective if focused in these waters. While risk is highest in the shipping lanes off San Francisco and Long Beach, only a fraction of total estimated mortality occurs in these proportionally small areas, making any conservation efforts exclusively within these areas insufficient to address overall strike mortality. We recommend combining shipping lane modifications and re-locations, ship speed reductions and creation of ‘Areas to be Avoided’ by vessels in ecologically important locations to address this significant source of whale mortality.
Rockwood, R. C., J. Calambokidis, J. Jahncke. 2017. High mortality of blue, humpback and fin whales from vessel collisions on the U.S. West Coast suggests population impacts and insufficient protection. Abstract (Proceedings) 22nd Biennial on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Halifax, Nova Scotia, October 22-27, 2017.