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Science Leads to Whale-saving Shipping Lane Change Proposal

by Walter Bonora
National Marine Sanctuaries

Cutting-edge whale research conducted by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA Fisheries Service scientists indicates that a minor northward shift in the Boston shipping lanes could significantly reduce the threat of whale-ship collisions in the sanctuary.

Proposed vessel traffic scheme
A proposed vessel traffic separation scheme showing whale concentrations and proposed lane shifts in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and proposed lane shifts. Graphic created by David Wiley and Michael Thompson, SBNMS. Click here for a larger view.
The lanes cross the southern half of the sanctuary in an area where endangered humpback, finback and right whales are often observed.

NOAA, through the U.S. Coast Guard, has asked the International Maritime Organization to make the shift a permanent reality. Local shipping companies support the proposal, which scientists say could reduce whale strikes by a whopping 81 percent.

The proposal stemmed from a study to identify where and when whales spend time in the sanctuary. After analyzing more than 20 years of whale sighting reports and data gathered through high-tech sensors and first-hand observations, scientists found that humpback and finback whales congregated in sandy areas preferred by sand lance fish, the prey of choice for many whales.

A 12-degree northward adjustment, the scientists concluded, would place the lanes over a more muddy and gravelly seafloor. The shift would also move the lanes away from right whale feeding areas.

“This step will significantly contribute to the safety of endangered and protected whales in the sanctuary and can be a model for similar actions in other areas,” said David Wiley, research coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary and lead scientist for the study. “It’s a great example of the sanctuary working with industry to accomplish important conservation objectives.”

Wiley notes that whale sighting data provided by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and the Whale Center of New England were critical to conducting the study and developing the proposal.

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