British Columbia

New alert system warns large ships of nearby whales off B.C. coast

A new alert system is launching off B.C.'s coast to warn large vessels about nearby whales, with the aim of reducing the number hit by boats.

Ships alerted to whales spotted within 10 nautical miles of vessels in previous 3 hours

Twelve out of 27 whale populations in B.C. are at risk, with the humpback considered to be of special concern. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire via AP)

A new alert system is launching off B.C.'s coast to warn large vessels about nearby whales, with the aim of reducing the number hit by boats.

A young humpback whale was recently found dead off Tsawwassen with injuries that matched being hit by a large ship.

With more than 10,000 large vessels sailing through local waters each year, it's these kinds of collisions that experts are trying to reduce with the new Whale Report Alert System.

"It seems to be a growing problem,"  said Lance Barrett-Lennard, a senior marine mammal scientist with the Coastal Ocean Research Institute.

The new alert warns ships by text message of any whales spotted in the previous three hours within 10 nautical miles (18.5 kilometres) of the vessel. Ship captains can see the location of the whale on a map, with details about the sighting.

"A lot of the time, they can and will use that information by slowing down or displacing laterally, changing course [to avoid the whales]," he told Gregor Craigie, host of CBC's On The Island.

A dead humpback whale washed ashore in Tsawwassen, B.C. on Nov. 16. The whale died from a ship strike, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

For several years, the research institute has run a similar volunteer program called the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, where people could submit whale sightings.

Over the years, roughly 130,000 sightings have been recorded in the database.

"We've taken that database and that system of collecting sightings and developed a way to turn it around so we can send that information in real time about the presence of whales," Barrett-Lennard said.

Ships can see the location of the whale on a map, with details about the sighting. (Valerie Shore/Shorelines Photography)

Effectiveness measured in coming months

Twelve out of 27 whale populations in B.C. are at risk. Fin whales are particularly in danger when it comes to passing ships, Barrett-Lennard said.

"They get distracted when they're feeding at the surface and quite vulnerable to being hit by ships," he said.

"Humpbacks are vulnerable to some extent and, of course, our southern resident killer whales are a population we worry about a lot."

The Coastal Ocean Research Institute expects to have an idea of how effective the alert system is at preventing collisions within the next six to eight months.

Barrett-Lennard said he doubts that shipping will ever have zero impact on whales, but he's hopeful about recent efforts to reduce the speed and noise of ships along with more focus on the presence of whales through alerts.  

"All of those things, I think, are what we need to be doing to reduce that impact as much as we can," he said.

A new alert system is launching off B.C.'s coast to warn large vessels about nearby whales in the hopes of reducing the numbers hit by boats. 6:42

With files from On The Island

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