Waves of Change: Regional Ocean Planning Works for Ships and Whales

Robin Just

Right whale skim feeding off Provincetown, MA. Copyright Brian Skerry.

Right whale skim feeding off Provincetown, MA. Photo: Brian Skerry

Shipping lanes in and around San Francisco Bay are being changed to protect the many whales that feed in its krill-rich waters. Blue whales, fin whales, and humpbacks will all benefit from the changes. This action took two years of collaboration, data-sharing, and negotiating among the shipping industry, government agencies, and environmental groups. This, in a nutshell, is the regional ocean planning process.

Why does this matter to a New England conservation group? Well, besides the fact that everybody loves a happy ending, New England has been a leader in this type of effort for many years now.

If there is one dramatic example of the need to coordinate our activities in New England’s ocean it is the tale of our beloved but extremely endangered North Atlantic right whales and the shipping traffic that was threatening their recovery.

Right whales love our productive Gulf of Maine waters – they find an abundance of their favorite krill and copepods that teem in our coastal areas. People are keeping a close eye on these urban whales, since there may be fewer than 500 of them left on the planet. This careful watching was why we knew that shipping traffic in and out of Boston Harbor was causing big problems for the right whales. In short – right whales are shallow feeders, making them highly vulnerable to fatal ship strikes. And each whale matters in such a small population.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary staff decided to take action to protect the right whales in a bold and unprecedented way. Using 25 years’ worth of whale sighting and state of the art acoustic research Stellwagen Bank officials discovered that the shipping lanes through the Sanctuary also contained the highest concentration of whales, resulting in too often fatal collisions. In a process that took three years and involved collaboration with the Port of Boston, researchers with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Cornell Bioacoustic Research Program, and a Texas-based energy company that relies on shipping in and out of the harbor – high quality data on the movements of whales in and around the Sanctuary was mapped and compared with shipping traffic in and out of Boston Harbor.

As a result, in 2007 the Sanctuary slightly altered the shipping lanesreducing whale strikes by 81 percent.

This wouldn’t have happened without scientists, conservationists, local officials, federal agencies and private industry deciding to work together.

To ensure continuing whale protection there are buoys “listening” for right whales throughout the bay, and there’s even an app for ship captains so they can receive whale location updates on their cell phones – alerting them to slow down or avoid certain areas. A lot of people came together to create an innovative solution to this complicated problem by using the principles of regional ocean planning. Everyone who had a stake in the process had a seat at the table.

This type of coordination is the heart of regional ocean planning. It’s simply about making sure everyone has a say in what in happens in our busy waters, including those of us who value protecting wildlife and natural habitats. As we have more happening in the Gulf of Maine, more ships, more whales, more renewable energy development, we need to be careful to organize these activities in a way that also protects existing commercial and recreational uses.

The pioneering Massachusetts and Rhode Island state ocean use plans are serving as the building blocks of New England’s regional ocean plan for federal waters. CLF is at the vanguard of ocean planning, innovating in New England what has become a national policy initiative intended to improve stewardship of vulnerable marine wildlife and habitats with responsible ocean uses.

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