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Saving whales from deadly ship collisions

  • Story Highlights
  • Only about 350 North Atlantic right whales remain in the world
  • The shallow-feeding whales have been struck and killed by commercial ships
  • Canadian scientists define a whale-feeding area off Nova Scotia for ships to avoid
  • After the first month, many ships are detouring around the whale "safe zone"
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By Marsha Walton
CNN
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(CNN) -- Drive past a car accident, everybody slows down to look. Tell a toddler, "Don't touch that," and of course he or she does.

A U.S. Coast Guard ship assists in a 2005 attempt to disentangle a right whale from fishing gear.

A U.S. Coast Guard ship assists in a 2005 attempt to disentangle a right whale from fishing gear.

Well, North Atlantic right whales are the same way.

Marine scientists say several right whales are struck and killed each year by commercial ships passing through their feeding grounds.

But when researchers blasted warning noises from ships to scare the whales away, the lumbering giants instead swam to the surface to see what was going on -- a response that put them in greater danger. Scientists found the animals are either so used to loud sounds, or so curious about them, that the noises apparently do the opposite of warning them.

"It's like living beside a train track. After a while you stop hearing the trains go by," said Angelia Vanderlaan, a doctoral candidate in oceanography at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Since the whales were not budging, Vanderlaan and other marine mammal experts designed a plan to encourage cargo ships to take a short detour around them during certain months of the year.

Right whales, which can grow to 70 tons, were hunted to the brink of extinction until killing them was outlawed in 1935. Whaling crews dubbed them the "right" whales to kill because they moved slowly and stayed close to the surface. Today, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the biggest threats to the animal. Photo See a photo gallery of right whales »

Because only about 350 right whales remain in the world, scientists have a pretty good idea where they hang out. In the summer, one primary feeding and socializing grounds is a 1,000-square-nautical-mile region known as the Roseway Basin, just south of Barrington, Nova Scotia. See a map of the whale feeding area »

Last year, the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body that regulates shipping activities, adopted Canada's proposal that the Roseway Bay be designated an "Area to Be Avoided," or ATBA.

The plan took effect June 1, and each year from June through December -- when the whales aren't in warmer southern waters -- that area is to be skirted by ships 300 tons and larger. While it's a voluntary measure, some shipping companies already have ordered their vessels to modify their routes to bypass the safe zone.

Captain L.C. Chan, assistant general manager in the fleet management department of the Orient Overseas Container Line in Hong Kong, responded to CNN by e-mail on the impact of the plan to its ships in the region.

"The new 'Area to Be Avoided' increases the steaming distance between Halifax [Nova Scotia] and New York by 3-5 nautical miles," Chan said. "The impact of this additional distance over the complete voyage is negligible, as both the increased steaming time and bunker [fuel] consumption is minimal."

Vanderlaan estimates the average detour would only add about 8.6 minutes to a 16-hour voyage.

Navigation charts, satellite messages and an international automated communications service known as NAVTEX all have been used to alert shipping companies of the new safe zone for these whales. But nothing beats old-fashioned human observers.

"The two-man bridge team has one primary duty during the navigational watch -- to maintain a safe lookout at all times. That includes keeping a watch for whales that might be on a collision course with the ship," responded Chan. Managers for the Hong Kong container line report all their ships sailing through the area complied with the ATBA during its first month.

While the ATBA is a voluntary plan, the Dalhousie scientists can monitor on their computers which ships are complying and which ones are ignoring the zone. Through technology called the Automatic Identification System, ocean vessels transmit their speed, direction and type of ship every three seconds. The telecommunications company Bell Aliant donated and installed special equipment on cell towers near Cape Sable Island to help the researchers track activity in the ATBA.

That tracking has provided some hopeful results to the Dalhousie team. The researchers have some preliminary analyses of the first month of the safe zone. Their study is called the Vessel Avoidance & Conservation Area Transit Experiment, known as VACATE.

In monitoring ships that usually pass through the ATBA, Dalhousie researchers noted that 52 ships avoided the area in June, while 35 still traveled through it. Vanderlaan said it's encouraging that some vessels passed through the ATBA on one leg of their voyage but avoided the area on their return.

"Subsequent to 31 May 2008, we have very clear evidence that several vessels that used to transit the ATBA are now voluntarily avoiding the area. This is a very good sign," said Dalhousie oceanography professor Christopher Taggart.

The safe zone is not the first time commerce and science have worked together to protect the right whale. In 2003, after consultations with scientists, commercial shipping companies and government regulators, the International Maritime Organization shifted shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy. The earlier routes had passed through a major right whale feeding and breeding grounds.

"It [the Bay of Fundy effort] has been a success story. It has reduced the risk by about 90 percent," said Dr. Moira Brown, senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute and the New England Aquarium's Edgerton Research Laboratory.

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She said the re-routed shipping lanes are considered one of the most important marine mammal protection measures in Canada.

"And there's been an unanticipated benefit," Brown said. "Mariner awareness about this whale species is huge."

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