This is great news for shippers, who can significantly cut travel distances for ships between Europe and Asia by threading their way through the Arctic rather than taking more conventional southern routes. But it is bad news for whales inhabiting one of Earth’s quietest and most pristine oceans. Increased ship traffic brings noise that disrupts whale communications and increases the direct risk of collisions between whales and ships. Noise may also indirectly raise collision risk by interfering with whales’ use of sound for navigation and communication.
Of course, climate change is already having many other impacts on Arctic whales, including potentially changing the availability of food supplies and creating a naturally noisier environment thanks to more wind and waves and less ice.
All of these factors – less ice, more ships, more noise – make this the ideal time to get out ahead of the growing problems for whales and take steps to reduce risks like the possibility of collisions. Only two of the five hotspots identified by WCS Canada scientists have vessel management measures in place. The area near Tuktoyaktuk is within a voluntary slowdown zone, and the area near Isabella Bay includes the Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area, which strictly manages and limits ship traffic. However, the offshore portion at Isabella Bay outside the National Wildlife Area remains unprotected. The other hotspots that our study identified, including Cumberland Sound, Gulf of Boothia, and Utqiaġvik, currently have no special vessel management measures in place.
Instead of waiting until we see a growing problem with collisions or whales abandoning core habitat areas, we should be looking at putting in place measures like well-defined shipping corridors that keep ships away from whale core use areas as much as possible and vessel slowdowns for areas where whales are likely to be in close proximity. Lower ship speeds, like lower automobile speeds, reduce the collision risk by increasing safety margins. In short, slower-moving ships produce less noise and give whales more time to react safely to a ship’s movements.
To help paint a picture of these high-priority conflict zones, WCS Canada has produced an online story map with interactive maps demonstrating areas frequented by whales, routes travelled by ships, and the overlap between these. The maps also let viewers explore the types of vessels that pose the most significant risk in each area and strike threat in different times of the year.
We certainly hope that Canada and other countries will do everything they can to slow global heating and reduce sea ice loss in the Arctic. But we also have to prepare for an Arctic Ocean that could be ice-free in summer as soon as 2035. We owe it to whales to keep traffic under control in their neighbourhoods.