Understanding Vessel Strikes


What is a vessel strike?

A vessel strike is a collision between any type of boat and a marine animal in the ocean. All sizes and types of vessels—from large ships to jet skis—have the potential to collide with nearly any marine species. Strikes that result in death or injury to the animal may go unnoticed by the vessel operator or unreported to researchers that keep track of such incidents. The types of vessels documented in vessel strikes include large boats, such as cargo ships, whale-watching boats, ferries, and military vessels, and all manner of private watercraft used for commercial and recreational purposes. Most reported collisions involve large whales, seals, or sea lions.

What is being done to prevent vessels from striking marine animals?

Encouraging responsible vessel practices and understanding the distribution of marine mammals and sea turtles are two key components to reducing the risk of vessel strikes. To keep whales safe from ships, we work with the U.S. Coast Guard and shipping industry leaders to conduct mariner outreach, collect information on vessel strike events, and fund and coordinate aerial surveys and research programs to improve our understanding of animal distribution. For sea turtles, we work with other wildlife agencies to study the occurrence of vessel strikes to identify risk factors and strategies for reducing them.

NOAA Fisheries has taken many actions to reduce vessel strikes. These include:


  • Establishing vessel speed restrictions in parts of the U.S. eastern seaboard during certain times of the year to reduce the threat of vessel collisions to North Atlantic right whales.
  • Working with the U.S. Coast Guard to establish recommended vessel routes and approaches to ports to reduce the overlap of whales and ships.
  • Establishing temporary precautionary zones, called Dynamic Management Areas (DMAs), around recently sighted right whale groups in which mariners are asked to reduce speed or steer clear of the area.
  • Supporting an app system, called WhaleWatch, that alerts ship operators to areas where U.S. West Coast blue whales are aggregating.
  • Alerting vessel and watercraft operators to the dangers to whales of collisions.
  • Developing and implementing “approach” regulations and guidance for operating vessels around whales in a number of regions.
  • Developing and distributing written material, placards, brochures, interactive CDs, and posting signs in marinas to alert mariners to safe practices around whales.
  • Developing and implementing Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems with the U.S. Coast Guard. Ships are required to report to a shore-based station when entering key right whale habitats, and in return they receive a message about whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, precautionary measures ships can take to avoid hitting one, and locations of recent sightings. The systems were endorsed by the International Maritime Organization, a specialized organization of the United Nations.
  • Working with partners to modify shipping routes at a number of heavily used ports in U.S. waters to minimize overlap and chances of ship collisions with blue, fin, humpback, and right whales and other species.
  • Tracking of vessel strike occurrence through carcass examinations by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Sea turtles

  • Tracking of vessel strike occurrence through the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network
    • Strandings of sea turtles with injuries caused by vessel strikes are tracked in coastal areas to understand the frequency of collisions and risk factors.
  • Promoting awareness.

We have also developed guidelines for viewing marine life to ensure their safety and yours. 

How can I help protect marine animals from vessel strikes?

Heed all regulations and guidelines regarding safe operation of vessels around marine animals. If a whale or turtle is in the vicinity of your vessel, travel at a slow, safe speed and leave the area if possible.

Here are some tips to avoid collisions:

  • Keep a sharp lookout. Look for blows, dorsal fins, flukes, etc.
  • Watch your speed in areas of known whale or turtle occurrence. Keeping speeds to 13 knots or less can reduce potential for injury.
  • Keep your distance. If you see a whale or turtle, stay at least 100 yards away.
  • Slow your boat immediately and put in it neutral if you see a whale or turtle. Resume at a slow, safe speed and distance your vessel from the animal.

Report marine life in distress

Immediately report an injured, entangled, stranded, or dead marine animal to your local stranding network. These networks are located around the country in all coastal states.

Report a violation

NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline ((800) 853-1964) provides live operator coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone in the United States to report a federal marine resource violation. During regular business hours, you also can call the closest NOAA Office of Law Enforcement field office to report possible violations.