Representatives of 24 Mediterranean and Black Sea States meet in Malta between November 29 and December 2 to decide on future conservation measures to protect whales and dolphins in these two seas.
The meeting takes place in the context of the Agreement for the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS)
The meeting should study the survival measures of the two great species of whales in the Mediterranean, fin whales and sperm whales, both in danger of extinction.
The OceanCare organization has called for urgent action to reduce ship strikes, the main direct cause of death for these marine giants.
Specifically, it has called for, among other measures, modifying or diverting maritime routes away from the main habitats of the whales where possible or reducing the speed of ships, which are the two options that have been shown to be the most effective way to avoid the collisions.
Likewise, it is proposed to equip ships with intelligent technologies to alert captains about the presence of whales in high-risk areas.
It’s time to act
“You already know what has to be done. Now is the time to act. Route diversion, reduced ship speeds, and new technologies in high-risk areas where diversion is not possible may be the recipe for success. Policy makers and the shipping industry must understand that together we can achieve the recovery of whale stocks in the Mediterranean,” says Nicolas Entrup, OceanCare’s director of international relations.
Main threat to whales in the Mediterranean
The threat to these species has to do with the intense maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea, one of the regions with the highest activity of the merchant marine and where a large number of fast ferries move.
It is estimated that each year more than 220,000 large ships transit the Mediterranean.
All this is having an impact on the two great species of whales in the Mediterranean, the fin whale and the sperm whale, which are in danger of extinction.
The fin whale population in the Mediterranean has been reduced by up to 50% in the last two decades.
In addition, the situation of sperm whales is worrying: only about 200 of these marine giants remain in the Hellenic Trench.
Some 30,000 large ships pass through this region every year. The risk of fatal collisions is related to the size and speed of the vessels. Between 1992 and 2021, more than 50% of the sperm whales found stranded on the Greek coast showed clear marks of collisions with ships.
Under international, regional and national commitments, States are obliged to protect these species. High-risk areas for ship-whale collisions in the Mediterranean Sea are the Hellenic Trench (for eastern Mediterranean sperm whales), the north-western Mediterranean Sea including the Cetacean Migration Corridor (between the Balearic Islands and the Spanish mainland coast) , the Pelagos Sanctuary (in the Ligurian Sea) and the eastern Alboran Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar: for both rorquals and sperm whales.
Diversion of routes to protect whales
The preferred measure to protect whales from ship strikes is to move shipping lanes away from their primary habitat. In recent months, a coalition made up of IFAW, OceanCare, the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute and WWF Greece have managed to convince major players in the maritime sector to change their routes when crossing the Hellenic Trench off Greece. MSC, the world’s largest shipping company, modified its routes in accordance with scientific advice, and the German Shipowners’ Association (VDR) urged its members to follow MSC’s example. In mid-October 2022, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), in a communication addressed to its members around the world, referred to these examples as a model to follow.
An effective and immediate measure Reducing the speed of ships is the most effective measure to protect whales in areas where rerouting ships is not an option. If the ships reduce their speed by just one tenth, the risk of a fatal collision with the whales decreases by 50%. In protected areas, a speed limit of about 10 knots is recommended.
Speed reduction is also a recommended measure to reduce CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases, as well as atmospheric pollutants and underwater noise. In fact, in November 2021, the ACCOBAMS Scientific Committee adopted a recommendation stressing that “where it is not possible to establish routes to keep whales separated from ships, the only measure that has been shown to reduce fatal collisions with most large whales is slowing down”.
Smart technology to help protect sperm whales
“The situation of some populations, such as that of sperm whales in the eastern Mediterranean, requires additional measures to avoid their extinction, particularly when the option of diverting routes is not a valid option,” says OceanCare.
This NGO has financed the development of the system (“Save Whales”) that uses high-tech buoys powered by solar energy and equipped with hydrophones to locate sperm whales by their clicks, and transmits their position in real time to affected maritime traffic.
This way if a ship is on a collision course with a whale, the ship’s captain can be warned in time to change course or slow down.
“Save Whales”, which has been successfully tested in a three-year pilot project, is the world’s first integrated sperm whale location system.