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Vessel Strikes

A vessel strike, sometimes referred to as a ship strike, is a collision between any type of boat and marine animal, including whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish, seals, or sea lions.

Tanker ship and North Atlantic right whale and calf Right whale Catalog #3115 “Harmony” and calf rest at the surface inside the busy shipping lane for the Port of Jacksonville on February 4, 2020. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (NOAA Fisheries Permit #20556-01).

Vessels of any size and type can strike and kill or injure marine life. Collisions can occur anywhere vessels cross paths with marine life but are more common in areas with both high vessel traffic and many animals.

Marine animals are challenging for vessel operators to see, as they spend most or all of their time underwater and generally have a low profile when surfacing to breathe. Many marine animals may not be able to detect a vessel, nor move out of the way of an approaching vessel.

Marine mammals, sea turtles, and protected fish like sturgeon and giant manta rays are some of the species struck by vessels and often injured or killed. Collisions involving larger marine animals and small or medium sized boats can damage vessels and cause serious, sometimes fatal, injuries to people, especially when the vessels are operating at high speeds.

Vessel Strike Reduction Efforts

NOAA Fisheries applies regulatory requirements and management practices to reduce the risk of vessel strikes, especially in areas with heavy vessel traffic. 

We also educate vessel operators on responsible boating practices. We gather information on the distribution of animals at risk of vessel strike, such as whales, dolphins, seals, sea turtles, and protected fish in our waters. NOAA Fisheries works with the U.S. Coast Guard, other federal agencies, the commercial shipping industry, and others to:

  • Conduct mariner outreach and education

  • Study and collect information on vessel strike events

  • Collect and analyze data on vessel traffic

  • Fund and conduct aerial surveys, acoustic monitoring, tagging, and research activities to improve our understanding of marine animal distribution

  • Identify solutions aimed at reducing vessel strikes of marine animals

We document and monitor vessel strike events through carcass examinations by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. Both networks assess and transport sick and injured marine mammals and sea turtles to permitted rehabilitation facilities, conduct necropsies on dead animals, and help educate the public about marine mammal and sea turtle conservation. Working with these networks helps us to better understand the frequency and severity of vessel collisions and the risk factors involved.

Vessel Strikes and Large Whales

All species of marine mammals are at risk of vessel strike, including and especially large whales.  Researchers have documented vessel collisions with whales along every U.S. coast. Whales are at particular risk when their core habitats overlap with areas of dense, fast-transiting vessel traffic.

It is challenging to determine when, where, and how many large whale vessel strikes occur. Given the size of large merchant and cruise vessels, it is unlikely that their operators will detect a whale strike when it occurs. There can be no noticeable change in speed or other signal. Some species of large whales become wedged across the bulbous bows of large vessels following a strike. Even then the vessel operator might not be aware of the presence of the struck whale until they come into port. 

The situation is very different when small or medium sized vessels are involved in collisions. In these cases, mariners feel the vessel collisions and are able to report these events to NOAA or the U.S. Coast Guard. When these smaller vessels are involved, both the boaters and the whales are at risk. People have been injured and boats have sustained significant damage and even sunk as a result of collisions with whales.

To avoid hitting whales, mariners should:

  • Always be alert and vigilant on the water

  • Wear polarized sunglasses to better see marine animals

  • Follow speed zones and other signage

  • Slow transit when operating in areas where large whales are likely to be present

whale-alert-phone-sm.jpg

Remaining alert and vigilant on the water is necessary, but is not sufficient alone to prevent a whale strike. In most cases, when mariners reported a collision, they did not see the whale prior to striking it. For such large animals, whales can be surprisingly hard to spot, especially in low light or poor weather conditions.

Report dead or injured whales through your local stranding hotline

Whale Alert App

Fishermen, recreational boaters, industry partners, and volunteer networks can use the Whale Alert app to stay up to date on where whales have recently been detected  and avoid these areas. 

Whale Alert app

Vessel Strikes and Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are found throughout U.S. waters, from very close to shore to open ocean.  They are at risk of being struck by vessels as they surface to breathe or as they rest, bask, or feed near the surface or in shallow water. There are six species of sea turtles listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

It is estimated that hundreds to thousands of sea turtles are struck by vessels in the United States every year, and many of them are killed. Vessel strikes are one of the most common causes of sea turtles stranding in the United States. In Florida alone, injuries consistent with vessel strikes are observed in 20 to 30 percent of stranded sea turtles.

Many sea turtles are struck by boats in high vessel traffic areas, such as passes and inlets. In the southeastern United States, adult sea turtles are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes during nesting season. That’s when they congregate near nesting beaches, and often breed or rest near the surface.

Our experts also work to investigate sea turtle strandings, which are often caused by vessel strikes. Watch the video below to see how you can help prevent vessel strikes and share the water with sea turtles.

 
To avoid hitting sea turtles, vessel operators should:
  • Always be alert

  • Wear polarized sunglasses to better see marine animals

  • Follow speed zones and other signage

  • Travel at the safest minimum speed in areas that sea turtles are known to frequent  

Report dead or injured sea turtles through your local stranding hotline

Vessel Strikes and Other Marine Life

Marine mammals and sea turtles are not the only species that are at risk for vessel strikes. Some protected fish species, such as sturgeon and giant manta rays, face similar threats.

For example, sturgeon carcasses often have evidence of propeller wounds or blunt force trauma consistent with vessel interaction. We encourage the public to report dead sturgeon because examining carcasses allows us to more accurately assess this threat. If you find a stranded, injured, or dead sturgeon, please report it to NOAA Fisheries at (978) 281-9328. In the Southeast, you can report at (844) STURG-911 or (844) 788-7491, or send us an email at NOAA.Sturg911@noaa.gov. 

Photographs of giant manta rays also show injuries consistent with vessel interactions, such as lacerations on pectoral fins from propeller strikes. If you encounter a dead or injured giant manta ray, please report it to NOAA Fisheries at manta.ray@noaa.gov. Providing photos or details such as where you saw the manta ray will help us learn more about the species’ distribution and risk of vessel strikes in the future.

If you encounter a protected fish species, such as a sturgeon or giant manta ray, please reduce speeds to idle and slowly distance your vessel from the animal.

Regional Efforts to Reduce Vessel Strikes

Alaska

Alaska’s waters are home to a wide array of marine mammals including whales, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and porpoises. Whether you are viewing marine mammals from the sea or shore, it is important to follow approach regulations and safe viewing practices. They can help reduce disturbance to marine life.

Marine mammal viewing guidelines and regulations in Alaska

NOAA Fisheries issued a final rule to establish measures to protect humpback whales in waters within 200 nautical miles of Alaska in 2001. Under these regulations, federal law requires vessels to remain at least 100 yards away from humpback whales in Alaska waters.

Alaska humpback whale approach regulations

East Coast

The East Coast of the United States has many marine species vulnerable to vessel strikes that we work to protect. The North Atlantic right whale is especially vulnerable to impacts from vessel collisions due to their preference for coastal habitats and frequent use of near surface depths. Every year, some of these whales migrate from their feeding grounds near New England and Canada to the coastal waters of Florida and Georgia to give birth. During these migrations, they cross busy shipping lanes, pass through active fishing grounds, and travel along coastlines filled with boaters. This makes them susceptible to injury or death from vessel strikes. As one of the most endangered whales on the planet, the North Atlantic right whale faces a number of potentially fatal threats from human activities. Entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the two primary factors impeding their recovery and are the cause of the current Unusual Mortality Event

In 2008, NOAA established a mandatory vessel speed rule to mitigate the impact of vessel strikes on North Atlantic right whales. The rule requires that most vessels longer than 65 feet slow their speed in seasonal management areas along the East Coast at certain times of year. Because vessels of all sizes can strike a whale, NOAA Fisheries encourages vessels less than 65 feet long to slow to 10 knots or less as well. This will help protect right whales and reduce the threat of vessel collisions.

While the mandatory speed rule has reduced the threat of vessel strikes to North Atlantic right whales, we continue to document vessel collisions with the species. Vessel strikes remain one of their leading causes of injury and death. 

In addition to the mandatory vessel speed rule, NOAA Fisheries has established mandatory minimum approach distances of 500 yards from North Atlantic right whales. We also established a variety of voluntary vessel speed reduction measures to help reduce the threat of vessel strikes to this species.

How we are working to reduce vessel strikes to North Atlantic right whales

North Atlantic right whale, a NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight

Ongoing North Atlantic right whale Unusual Mortality Event 

Dynamic Management Areas and Right Whale Slow Zones

When North Atlantic whales occur outside of their predictable locations, Dynamic Management Areas or Right Whale Slow Zones are established. They are put in place for 15 days around areas where right whales have been recently seen or heard. Mariners are encouraged to avoid these areas or reduce speeds to 10 knots or less while transiting through them to reduce the risk of vessel collisions. 

For real-time information about Right Whale Slow Zones, boaters and interested parties can sign up for email notifications and select "Right Whale Slow Zones" under the Regional New England/Mid-Atlantic subscription topics. 

Stay connected and learn more:

Pacific Islands

Humpback Whales

In the central Pacific Ocean, each winter thousands of humpback whales migrate to the Hawaiian Islands to breed, give birth, and nurse their young. NOAA Fisheries and the State of Hawai'i partner through the Hawai’ian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. They conduct outreach campaigns to help spread awareness among the ocean-user community on the presence of humpback whales and other marine protected species. Federal regulations prohibit approaching within 100 yards of humpback whales in Hawai’i waters. See guidance on how to avoid vessel strikes. 

Learn more about responsible recreation

Sea Turtles

Green sea turtles are present in the Pacific Islands year-round, and individuals living in or near small boat harbors are most vulnerable to vessel strikes. They come up to the surface to breathe and forage for food in shallow reef areas. NOAA Fisheries, the State of Hawai'i, and non-profit partners provide guidance to ocean users on how to help prevent vessel collisions with sea turtles, including:

  • "Posting-a-Lookout"

  • Following “Slow-No Wake” speeds within 200 feet of shore

  • Driving slowly (5-10 knots) near harbors and boat launches

  • Wearing polarized sunglass to help see and avoid sea turtles 

Preventing ship strikes on sea turtles in the Pacific Islands

Southeast

In the Gulf of Mexico, regulatory requirements are in place to help protect the critically endangered Bryde’s whale from vessel strike in the northern Gulf where the whales are most commonly observed.

West Coast

The U.S. West Coast has heavy vessel traffic associated with some of the largest ports in the country. These include the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Francisco, Seattle, and the Columbia River. 

NOAA Fisheries continues to collaborate with NOAA Sanctuaries and the U.S. Coast Guard to affect changes in shipping lanes to help reduce the risk of vessels striking large whales and other species protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Vessel strikes on the West Coast and recommendations on how to avoid collisions

Southern Resident Killer Whales

Southern Resident killer whales are an icon of the Pacific Northwest. These charismatic marine mammals are popular with tourists, whale-watch operators, and the general public. They are also an endangered species and a NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight. In 2011, NOAA issued a rule on vessel traffic, aiming to give these endangered whales a wider berth.

Regulations on vessel effects for Southern Resident killer whales

Current Washington state regulations require vessels to stay at least 300 yards to either side of killer whales. They must also stay no less than 400 yards in front of and behind them in Washington state waters. U.S. federal regulations require vessels to stay at least 200 yards away from killer whales in Washington’s inland waters.

Learn more about boating safeguards for killer whales

A new study showed that nearby vessels interrupt the feeding of Southern Resident killer whales, especially females. A new analysis of data from suction-cup tags that track the whales’ movement underwater shows that boat traffic within 400 yards of endangered Southern Resident killer whales interrupts their foraging, often leading female whales to cease feeding altogether. 

Study on vessel approach effects to Southern Resident killer whales

Seals and Sea Lions

Several species of seals and sea lions are very abundant off the West Coast and are at risk of  vessel strikes, especially in areas of heavy vessel traffic and where boaters transit at high speeds. Whether you are viewing seals and sea lions from a watercraft or on shore, remain at least 50 yards away—about half a football field. 

West Coast viewing guidelines

How You Can Help Protect Marine Animals

It is important to do your part to protect marine animals. Follow these regulations and guidelines to safely operate vessels and maintain appropriate distances. You can take actions to keep animals in the water safe.

Slow Down

If you are in an area of high marine animal presence, slow down to 10 knots or less.

Keep Watch

Marine animals are very difficult to spot. Stay alert and look out for marine animals whenever you are out on the water! Look for water movement, blows, fins, heads, shells, flukes, and flippers. Polarized sunglasses help.

Move Away

If you see evidence of a marine animal, slowly move away. Stay at least 100 yards away from whales and turtles, and 500 yards away from right whales.

Report

Contact your local stranding network to immediately report an injured, entangled, stranded, or dead marine animal. 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. Anyone in the United States can use the hotline to report a federal marine resource violation. During regular business hours, you also can contact your closest NOAA Office of Law Enforcement field office to report possible violations.

Resources

map

North Atlantic Right Whale Seasonal Management Areas (SMA) Map & GIS Data

North Atlantic right whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The purpose of SMAs is to…

peer_reviewed

Spatial Distribution and Dive Behavior of Gulf of Mexico Bryde's Whales: Potential Risk of Vessel Strikes and Fisheries Interactions

Bryde’s whales, Balaenoptera edeni, are the only resident baleen whale species in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), where they are extremely rare,…

Insight

Understanding Vessel Strikes

Learn how NOAA Fisheries works to reduce the threat of vessel collisions with marine animals.