Marine Mammals on the West Coast: Ship Strikes
Collisions with ships are one of the primary threats to marine mammals, particularly large whales, along the U.S. West Coast and around the world.
All sizes and types of vessels can hit whales. The U.S. West Coast has some of the heaviest ship traffic associated with some of the largest ports in the country, including the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Francisco, Seattle, and the Columbia River.
Of all the large whale species that inhabit our coastline, Blue, Fin, Humpback, and Gray whales are the most vulnerable to ship strikes because they migrate along the coast and many use areas along the coast for feeding, where they overlap with heavy shipping traffic. Gray, Fin, Humpback, and Minke whales are observed in the inland waters of Washington, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Salish Sea, and may also be vulnerable to ship strikes there.
Gray whales from the Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregation do not complete the typical gray whale migration that begins in late fall and ends near the beginning of June. They are also vulnerable to ship strikes when feeding near Whidbey and Camano Islands.
Recommendations To Avoid Collisions
NOAA Fisheries has collaborated with NOAA Sanctuaries and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to effect changes in shipping lanes that should help reduce the risk of ships striking large whales. The USCG is responsible for establishing and modifying shipping lanes under the Ports and Waterways Safety Act. Whenever the USCG considers making changes to existing shipping lanes, it initiates a Port Access Route Study (PARS) process to study options and to allow the public and government agencies the opportunity to provide input.
NOAA Fisheries provided the USCG with information on the abundance and distribution of whales as part of the PARS for shipping routes in the Los Angeles/Long Beach and San Francisco areas, the two major ports in California. This information was included in the PARS and in the USCG’s recommendations, which would shift shipping lanes in ways to help reduce the overlap of ships and large whales. In 2012, the USCG took their recommendations to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO approved the recommendations and in July 2013, the shipping lanes shifted.
NOAA Fisheries has worked with the Southern California Marine Exchange to coordinate meetings with shipping industry leaders to discuss the issue of large whale ship strikes. NOAA Fisheries works with the USCG, industry representatives, and NOAA Weather Service to alert mariners of the presence of large whales, as a way to raise awareness and help prevent strikes. NOAA Fisheries staff have served on stakeholder groups established to improve understanding and develop a plan to help reduce ship strikes.
Recommendations for Operators of Large Vessels to Help Reduce the Risk of Ship Strikes
Learn when the seasonal abundance of large whales are in your shipping lanes, and be aware of whale advisories.
Consult the Local Notice to Mariners in your area or Coast Pilot for more information.
Keep a sharp look-out for whales. If possible, post extra crew on the bow who are dedicated to watch for whales.
Reduce speeds while in the advisory zones, or in areas of high seasonal or local whale abundance.
If practicable, re-route vessel to avoid areas of high whale abundance.
How to Report
To report a dead, injured, or stranded marine mammal:
West Coast Region Stranding Hotline: 1-866-767-6114
To report entangled marine mammals:
Entanglement Reporting Hotline: 1-877-SOS-WHAL or 1-877-767-9425
The U.S. Coast Guard: VHF Ch. 16
To report harassments and other violations to law enforcement:
NOAA Enforcement Hotline: 1-800-853-1964
To report derelict gear:
Derelict Gear Hotline: 1-855-542-3935
Ship Strike Partners & Collaboration
Every year NOAA Fisheries works with the USCG to broadcast and publish local notices to mariners to alert vessel operators about the presence of large whales, particularly in and around shipping lanes. In collaboration with NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary partners and the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, we created and distributed an educational poster about the four large whale species most commonly found along the West Coast. The goal of the poster is to educate mariners about large whales off the West Coast and to encourage them to report sightings and whales in distress.
NOAA Fisheries’ scientists rely on educational institutions, other agencies, and other partners focusing on an assessment of the risk of a large vessel hitting a large whale. We recognize that any vessel type can hit a marine mammal and it is expected that the data we collect through our current efforts will aid in any future efforts to reduce the risk of any type of vessel strike with a large whale. We also rely on our shipping industry leaders and representatives, local Marine Mammal Stranding Networks, and other stakeholder groups.
Science & Research
Rockwood et al. 2017. High mortality of blue, humpback and fin whales from modeling of vessel collisions on the U.S. West Coast suggests population impacts and insufficient protection. PLOS ONE 13(7): e0201080. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201080
Vessel Collision Workshop Report, 2010
Poster About Whales For Mariners (PDF, 2 pages)