A new eco-label will certify shipping companies and cruise lines “Whale-Safe”
- A new eco-label will certify freight and cruise lines that take action to prevent their ships from colliding with whales.
- To obtain the label, companies must have 24/7 surveillance on board their vessels, share whale watching data via a digital platform, have procedures in place to act if a whale is sighted and follow local speed and navigation rules.
- The challenge ahead is to persuade companies to register and comply – a task that will depend on pressure from customers and may be easier for some types of shipping lines than others, experts say.
In the 1980s, a video of dolphins dying in fishing nets sparked a public boycott of tuna and development canned tuna dolphin-safe labeling programs that have become ubiquitous in many countries. Now an organization wants to use this model to protect whales from collisions with ships.
Italian NGO World Sustainability Organization launched the new label “Whale-Safe” in March via its Friend of the sea project, which certifies that fishing, aquaculture and tourism efforts are sustainable.
Collisions with ships are a major cause of death and injury to whales. A about 80 whales die each year from collisions with ships off the western United States. In Mediterranean, one in five stranded whales registered have marks of collisions with ships. And while the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has compiled records of collisions with ships from almost every corner of the globe these records are considered incomplete; crews of larger vessels may not notice if they strike a whale, and even observed impacts often go unreported.
With maritime traffic increasing, these impacts have serious implications, especially for vulnerable species. More North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) die each year from collisions with vessels and entanglements in fishing gear.
“Time is not on our side, and we must act,” said Paolo Bray, founder of Friend of the Sea, in an interview with Mongabay. Bray is also the European Director of the California-based Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Watching Program, which certifies that tuna companies registered outside of the United States meet dolphin-safe standards.
Whale-Safe certification requires participating large vessels to meet criteria that increase the chances of spotting, avoiding and documenting whales. Ships must have an observation system that works at all times. This could include a human observer, but Bray said an infrared camera system would be more effective by allowing constant surveillance, including at night and in bad weather when human vision is limited.
Participating vessels must have a protocol, approved by Friend of the Sea, on how to react when they see a whale, although the certification does not dictate what that reaction should be. They have to use some kind of digital platform to access sighting information and share it with other vessels. Bray also added that ships must report any collisions with whales to the local coast guard and the CBI database. (There is no legal obligation to do so.)
Some whale experts have expressed skepticism about these criteria. John Calambokidis, a research biologist studying human impacts on marine mammals at the Cascadia Research Collective in Washington state, said the program’s focus on whale watching rather than trying to prevent the ships interacting with them in the first place could jeopardize its success.
“Their suggested solution seems almost entirely focused on the idea of watching and avoiding whales to reduce collisions with ships, which has generally not been seen as a particularly effective strategy,” Calambokidis wrote in a e-mail to Mongabay.
The challenge, Calambokidis said, is how difficult it is to spot whales at night and in bad weather. Infrared cameras of the type suggested by Bray for low visibility conditions are currently in test phase and remain unproven, he said. Vessels also have a limited ability to take evasive action.
Instead, he said, most ship collision reduction strategies focus on slowing ships or rerouting shipping lanes outside of whale habitat, which has proven its benefits. .
Whale-Safe will require vessels to comply with local regulations, including speed requirements and whale-specific shipping routes. The program will track compliance by working with local agencies or using platforms that already track ships along their route. The goal, Bray said, is to “provide flexibility” by allowing ships to prove compliance through the services they already use.
Friend of the Sea plans to regularly publish a list of shipping companies that comply with Whale-Safe requirements. It also plans to publish a study assessing the compliance of the largest cruise and freight operators.
The aim is to stoke public pressure as a way to galvanize businesses to participate. “I think once consumers start to be aware of what’s going on with whales, they’ll push for change,” Bray said.
This strategy may be more effective for some types of maritime traffic than for others.
René Taudal Poulsen, associate professor at Copenhagen Business School, studies sustainability in maritime industries. He said the current sustainability certification programs for the shipping industry, which primarily focus on carbon emissions and air pollution, are most effective in consumer-oriented sectors.
Container carriers and cruise lines, for example, interact directly with their customers’ businesses and travelers. Their ships also often return to the same ports on several occasions. This creates a public image that can be subject to pressure from the community. It also allows local incentive programs, such as reduced dock fees at their home ports in return for reduced air pollution.
However, the same incentives do not apply to tankers and bulk carriers, which together constitute about half of all merchant maritime traffic. These large ships are operated by many small businesses with little public image. They travel around the world, have few ties to port communities, and have little incentive to work for local incentives.
“These initiatives convert the pressure on the port from the port community, or consumer pressure on big brand products, into incentives,” Taudal Poulson said in an interview with Mongabay. “But tankers and bulk carriers carry goods like grain, iron ore, fertilizer – things you don’t buy in a supermarket. So public pressure has not resulted in much improvement so far. “
“We want to face [companies] with the problem, and it will be a gradual process. We don’t expect things to change immediately, ”Bray said. “But we hope that by bringing this issue to the surface through the media, and also by educating the general public about this issue, we believe that the approach of business will gradually change.”
If companies volunteer to participate in Whale-Safe and comply with it, the final challenge will be to assess the real impact of the label. Take the model of the new program, labeling of tuna that is safe for dolphins. Dolphin deaths caused by tuna fishing in the Eastern Pacific Ocean fell drastically since the 1980s, from over 100,000 per year to almost 1,000. But experts attribute this improvement not only to dolphin-safe labels, but also to other measures adopted around the same time. These include the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the La Jolla Accord of 1990 which set limits on dolphin mortality in tuna fisheries.
If tuna fishing serves as a prototype, it seems clear that shipping companies will not be able to solve their whale collision problem. Reducing whale mortality will likely require a much broader response.
Banner image: A juvenile North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) breached when a bulk carrier passed near the entrance to the St. John’s River in Florida in 2006. The species is one of the most endangered whales in the world. world, with less than 400 living individuals. Image courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 775-1600-10 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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