Study: Whales in Ice-Free Arctic Face Emerging Threat from Ships

arctic sea ice
Sea ice along the east coast of Banks Island in the western Canadian Arctic. Photo credit: UVic researcher William Halliday, a co-author of the new study led by UVic marine biologist Lauren McWhinnie. 

As climate change brings a longer ice-free season and more commercial ships to the Arctic, a new study is recommending that precautionary measures be put in place to minimize the negative impacts of increased vessel traffic on marine mammals, namely from threats including noise and ship strikes.

In the Arctic, mammals such as belugas and bowhead whales rely on a quiet environment to communicate and forage. But as Arctic sea ice shrinks and shipping traffic increases, vessel disturbance could very likely impact their social behaviors, distribution and long-term survival, according to the new study led by University of Victoria marine biologist Lauren McWhinnie.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Ocean and Coastal Management, the study calls for precautionary measures such as voluntary exclusion and speed reduction zones to minimize some of the negative impacts of more vessel traffic.

“We can start by trying to apply the lessons learned from vessel management in heavily trafficked southern regions while we still have the opportunity to do things right in the Arctic,” says McWhinnie, a post-doctoral researcher in UVic’s geography department. “A voluntary restriction on vessel speed will reduce the likelihood of ship strikes and contribute to reducing noise levels. Other trial studies have shown that slower vessels pose less risk to marine mammals.”

By examining management plans from over 1,000 international Marine Protected Areas, the researchers identified and evaluated 14 vessel management tools to assess their potential suitability for use in an Arctic environment. After evaluating each tool, researchers recommend that at least two of these spatial tools are suitable for the Arctic: a voluntary exclusion zone (avoidance) and a voluntary speed reduction zone (slow down).

Depending on the size of the area where these measures are deployed, the study found that they would only significantly affect very large and fast vessels traveling further from shore rather than smaller community boats operating closer to shore. The study area was in the eastern Beaufort Sea of the western Canadian Arctic, near the western entrance of the Northwest Passage, a crucial area for managing ship traffic in the future.

“The important thing is that we start considering these problems now while we still have a window of opportunity to do something about this issue and before these animals are in the position of their more southerly endangered counterparts, such as the southern resident killer whales in BC and northern right whales on the East Coast,” says McWhinnie.