Canada is bordered by the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans, through which large volumes of marine traffic migrate daily. Commercial shipping vessels, cruise ships, fishing fleets, and personal watercraft among others navigate the coastal waters, frequently coming in contact with both resident and migratory wildlife. Oceanic vessels present a number of risks to wildlife, including collisions, deliberate and accidental contamination, and noise pollution. Marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, walruses, and sea otters are particularly vulnerable to the dangers presented by ocean traffic. As the number of ships increases, so too do the hazards that they present to aquatic life.
Bigg's Killer Whale T011A "Rainy"
The North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered species of large whales on the planet and exist within high volume shipping lanes along the east coast of Canada, often resulting in their deaths or injuries. Baleen whales such as grey and humpback whales off the coast of British Columbia are at risk of ship strikes and many found dead along the coastline were determined to have been struck by vessels resulting in their deaths. The reduction in sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has resulted in increased shipping traffic, further increasing the hazards posed to marine mammals in the region.
The primary risks to wildlife associated with vessels underway are ship and propeller strikes. Wildlife at sea are difficult to detect and avoid by captains, made more challenging by lighting and weather conditions. Marine mammals in particular often feed at or near the surface of the water and return to the surface to replenish their air supply. Additionally, many whale species rest at the surface of the ocean and are virtually impossible to see. Vessel operators often assume that whales will use echolocation to observe the presence of boats and navigate away from them safely. However, only toothed whales such as orcas and sperm whales have that ability. Baleen whales such as humpback and grey whales do not have bio sonar and may be entirely unaware of approaching ships. The combination of typical vessel and animal behaviours results in frequent injury and loss of life to wildlife.
Humpback Whales BCY0996 "Chinook" and BCX1602 "Lorax"
Statistics related to wildlife vessel strikes are collected but not publicly distributed in Canada. Gaining an accurate picture of the scale of the problem is extremely difficult without data to validate the anecdotal reports.
The primary sources of contamination by vessels in Canadian coastal waters are greywater, bilge water, sewage, and scrubber wastewater. While the government of Canada has implemented mandatory regulations under an interim order on the discharge of greywater and sewage by cruise ships, they have not yet addressed the primary source of contamination, which is the dumping of scrubber wastewater into the oceans surrounding the country. Many large ships include scrubber systems that use water to wash contaminants such as sulfur dioxide, carcinogens, and heavy metals from the exhaust systems. The resulting slurry is then emptied into the sea, increasing ocean acidification that inhibits the ability of crustaceans to form shells in their early development. Shipping vessels operating in Canadian coastal waters are not yet subject to any regulations relating to the discharge of toxic substances. The following statistics identified by World Wildlife Fund Canada relate to the generation of contaminants by ships in Canadian coastal waters:
Bilge water - 77.5 million litres
Sewage - 549.8 million litres
Grey water - 3.6 billion litres
Scrubber wastewater - 143 billion litres
Vessel noise has been widely identified as another hazard faced by marine wildlife. The noise created by vessels can also impair the ability of marine mammals to navigate and successfully avoid collisions with vessels. It also increases stress levels in marine wildlife, reducing immunity and adversely affecting reproduction. Communication is essential to some marine mammals, such as the Southern Resident orca population, which traverses between western Canadian and U.S. coastal waters in the path of shipping and recreational vessels. The noise created by ocean vessels interferes with the orca’s echolocation, which they rely on to successfully hunt salmon. Combined with the impacts of the rapidly diminishing chinook salmon population, Southern Resident orcas are now listed as an endangered species and number only 73 as of August 2023.
There are several solutions to address the issues of vessel strikes, pollution, and noise.
With regards to vessel strikes, there are a range of potential solutions that could help to mitigate the dangers to marine wildlife:
Regulate and enforce lower vessel speeds, particularly in areas with higher populations of marine mammals and threatened species.
Use technology such as acoustic and thermal sensors to alert vessels to the presence of whales.
Establish shipping routes that avoid areas frequented by marine mammals and threatened species.
Provide educational resources to vessel operators to improve awareness of the risks of ship strikes such as knowledge about marine mammal behaviour, areas of known density, and signs of presence.
Investigate incidents of ship-strikes to better understand patterns and behaviours of wildlife at sea.
Contamination of ocean waters can be controlled through government regulations that prohibit vessels from dumping hazardous materials into the ocean. Existing laws can be strengthened to cover materials not currently included in the established regulations and expanded to include all waters under the jurisdiction of Canada.
Vessel noise can be reduced by regulating speed in protected areas and regions with high numbers of marine animals. Technological advancements can also be employed in the design of marine vessels and watercraft to reduce noise.
Marine Education and Research Society
“The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response.”
Based in Port McNeill on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the organization incorporated in 2010 and has concentrated its humpback research in the areas of central Vancouver Island north to the coastal community of Bella Bella and the northwest region of Vancouver Island. MERS is composed of scientists and educators focussed on marine conservation, applying their knowledge of marine ecosystems to develop and disseminate a greater understanding of the complexity of the coastal environment.
Their educational outreach has helped to inform boaters of the hazards of wildlife strikes by vessels and entanglement in fishing gear and reduce the volume of debris contaminating coastal waters. Research conducted by MERS has included studies of local marine mammals to better understand the hazards that they currently face, coordinating the provincial documentation of the humpbacks in B.C. waters through the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration, and the monitoring of Mola sightings in contribution to an international research project. MERS also provides coordination and communication as a regional hub for marine mammal incident response.
You can help MERS to further their objectives.
“Sound is magnified in water. It travels up to five times faster and further. This is why there are distance limits and speed limits around marine wildlife."
Jackie Hildering, Marine Education and Research Society