Modelling ship strike risk to fin, humpback and killer whales in British Columbia, Canada

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Rob Williams
Patrick O'Hara


Many cetacean species are susceptible to mortality or serious injury from vessel collisions. Spatially explicit assessments of risk per whale can help identify potential problem areas to guide appropriate mitigation measures. Canada’s Pacific waters host high cetacean densities and intense maritime traffic, and the issue of vessel collisions has taken on a high priority in British Columbia (BC) recently due to several major industrial development applications. Spatially-explicit statistical modelling and Geographic Information System (GIS) visualisation techniques identified areas of overlap between shipping activity and waters used by humpback, fin and killer whales. Areas of highest risk were far removed from areas with highest concentrations of people, suggesting that many beach-cast carcasses could go undetected. With few exceptions, high-risk areas were found in geographic bottlenecks, such as narrow straits and passageways. Port expansion and a proposed pipeline for carrying oil from Alberta to BC’s north coast (with associated oil tanker traffic) would increase ship strike risk for all three species. The risk assessments illustrate where ship strikes are most likely to occur, but cannot estimate how many strikes occur. Propeller wounds on live killer whales are common in the region, and fatal collisions have been reported in BC for all three species. Procedures were used to estimate potential mortality limits in accordance with a wide range of quantitative management objectives from jurisdictions around the world. While the extent of under-reporting of ship strikes has not been evaluated, the few known cases of collisions involving fin whales suggest that mortality due to ship strike for this species may already be approaching or even exceeding mortality limits under the most risk-averse management objectives. It is hoped that risk maps may inform environmental impact assessments of marine traffic because it will be easier to plan new shipping lanes so that they avoid high-density areas for whales than it will be to move the lanes after they become entrenched.

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