The container shipping industry has a profound effect on marine life. From the smallest bacteria to the biggest beasts, ships are a direct threat to wildlife and habitats.

Underwater Noise Pollution

The Port of Vancouver recently announced a project to monitor underwater noise pollution in the Haro Strait, running from August to October this year. Marine life conservationists suggest that noise pollution has brought Orcas in the Salish Sea to near extinction, so the announcement of this study is welcomed by the industry. This could provide an important insight into how Orcas are affected by noise pollution and how we offset the problem.

But the issues extend far beyond North American waters. Ambient noises produced by ships disturb all cetaceans around the world. This group of marine animals rely on sound to communicate, navigate and find prey by transmitting and receiving acoustic information. Scientists call this process ‘echolocation’ and it is vital for their survival. However, noisy ship engines make it much harder for these creatures to thrive.

Various solutions have been discussed. For example, slower sailing speeds are thought to reduce noise pollution thus lessen the disturbance. As a part of their study, the Port of Vancouver has limited vessels to 11 knots to test this hypothesis.

As with so many aspects of modern life, commercial pressures can be used to adjust behaviour. Underwater noise reduction technology exists and the Port of Vancouver offers lower port fees to vessels with the technology installed. Noise reduction measures can be as simple as insulating engine rooms as well as regular maintenance of propellers and hull but the Port of Vancouver can only promote this through this incentive. Vancouver is a world leader in marine conservation but it is fair to say that this technology should be mandatory across all international shipping. The conservation of marine life is a global concern so worldwide legislation is necessary.

Ship Strikes

A ship strike is when a vessel and whale collide nevertheless this can be prevented with slower speeds. It’s predicted when a ship travels at 15 knots or above there’s a 79% chance a strike will be lethal. Considering average cruising speeds are around 20-25 knots it is no surprise this is a serious danger to whales, ships and crews.

Strikes are common occurrences. WWF (the World Wildlife Fund) predicts that, in the Canary Islands, 8 out of 10 known whale fatalities are as a result of collisions.


Chance of Whale Fatality at 15 knots

Average Cruising Speed (in Knots)

Dr Jeremy Goldbogan of Stanford University suggested that strikes happen due to the evolutionary makeup of a whale. The sheer size of these beasts means they have never had to defend themselves from predators. There is no innate ‘fight or flight’ mode, so whales don’t know how to deal with the threat of a ship.

Their size makes it hard to dive fast enough to clear a vessel’s path. Some of the most affected species are the biggest, the Humpback Whale and Blue Whale, but ships are getting larger and this adds to the problem. Post-Panamax ships find it difficult to notice whales in the water. Sometimes the ship doesn’t know when they have struck a whale and carcases can become stuck on the bulbous bow and carried for some distance.

To curb this problem the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) have introduced speed limits and Areas to be Avoided (ATBA) for ships. Areas around the Bay of Fundy, Panama and Spain have permanent restrictions while some correspond with the seasonal behaviour patterns. Whale’s behaviour is easily predicted so the IMO can implement seasonal routeing measures in areas such as the Roseway Basin and the Great South Channel which sees seasonal whale distribution. The IMO has also implemented whale reporting and detection networks which allow ships to locate whales in real time. And as numbers of Blue Whales and Humpback Whales are steadily increasing the mitigation measures seem to be working.

Ballast Water and Invasive Species

The shipping industry affects not just the biggest creatures but also the smallest.

Ballast water is an essential part of nautical technology. It gives stability, balance and trim to a ship in poor weather conditions and during voyages without cargo. It works by sucking up water at the port of discharge and stores it in the ballast tanks in the ship’s hull. Once the port of loading is reached the tanks are then unloaded.

But marine life can get into the ballast tanks when water is being taken on. That marine life is then placed into a foreign habitat when the ballast is discharged and newly introduced bacteria, plants and animals can have a devastating effect on ecosystems. Scientists call this a bio-invasion because foreign species can become invasive for native species. Foreign marine life can kill off native species by controlling food resources and this starts a chain reaction as prey dies out.

Throughout history, environmental and humanitarian problems often stemmed from bio-invasions. For instance, problems were seen in the Great Lakes after the Lamprey Eel was introduced. The eels were native to the lakes in the east and were able to move west using newly opened canals in the late-1890s. The eels completely turned the eco-system around by killing off 90% of the native trout in the western lakes. This made many unemployed in the towns around the lakes as the fishing industry vanished.

But a more recent demonstration of a deadly bio-invasion is due to ballast water. In 1991 a type of cholera, only seen in Bangladesh, broke out in Peru. The disease killed over 10000 people in the South American state through the early-1990s. Ballast water introduced the disease to Peruvian waters but a poor public health infrastructure spurred this into a pandemic.

The Deadly Effects of Bio-Invasion:


Trout Population Decrease

Deaths from Cholera in Peru

To solve this problem the IMO has adopted the Ballast Water Management Convention (BWMC). The convention requires all ships in international transit to carry a ballast water record and meet regulation standards using ballast water management systems. All ships, both new and existing, must install technology which monitors and manages ballast. This is predicted to cost some ship owners up to USD 5 billion to meet the new IMO standards.

Some have opposed the original enforcement date that was set for 2017. The ICO (International Chamber of Shipping) proposed a further two years to allow existing ships adequate time to implement the changes required by the convention. At the 71st Maritime Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) meeting in 2017, the ICO’s wish was granted. So we will have to wait until 2019 to see this tech in action across the entire world fleet.

Maritime industries such as fisheries and shipping share the same waters and have to work side by side. Often they are subject to the same regulations. Changes made for the good of one should be beneficial in time for all seafaring industries, and this may explain why shipping is tackling marine conservation proactively. Unlike the problems of greenhouse gases and global warming, there has been a punctual reaction. Perhaps the problems caused by maritime industries are quicker and easier to fix. Of course, there is still a long road ahead. It will be hard to find a full solution but our industry must persist. We need to implement, develop and improve our efforts for the conservation of marine life.

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