Study: Vessel Speed Restriction to Protect Mammals in Arctic

Sea ice along the east coast of Banks Island in the western Canadian ArcticImage Courtesy: UVic researcher William Halliday

A restriction on vessel speed could reduce the likelihood of ship strikes in Arctic waters and contribute to reducing noise levels to protect mammals, a study from University of Victoria showed.

In the Arctic, marine mammals such as belugas and bowhead whales rely on a quiet environment to communicate and forage.

But as Arctic sea ice shrinks and shipping traffic increases, vessel disturbance “could very likely impact their social behaviours, distribution and long-term survival,” according to a new study led by University of Victoria marine biologist Lauren McWhinnie.

The study calls for precautionary measures to minimize the negative impacts of increased vessel traffic in the Arctic—such as noise and ship strikes—as climate change brings a longer ice-free season.

“We can start by trying to apply the lessons learned from vessel management in heavily trafficked southern regions while we still have the opportunity to do things right in the Arctic,” McWhinnie, a post-doctoral researcher in UVic’s geography department, said.

By examining management plans from over 1,000 international Marine Protected Areas, the researchers identified and evaluated 14 vessel management tools to assess their potential suitability for use in an Arctic environment.

After evaluating each tool, researchers recommend that at least two of these spatial tools are suitable for the Arctic: a voluntary exclusion zone (avoidance) and a voluntary speed reduction zone (slow down).

Depending on the size of the area where these measures are deployed, this study found that they “would only significantly affect very large and fast vessels travelling further from shore rather than smaller community boats operating closer to shore.”

The study area was in the eastern Beaufort Sea of the western Canadian Arctic, near the western entrance of the Northwest Passage, a crucial area for managing ship traffic in the future.

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