Last years figures reveal that the number of the endangered mammals are significantly dropping and shipping has no little to do about this. Whales use sound to communicate, navigate and hunt, but underwater noise from recreational and commercial vessels can disrupt those activities. Vessel noise, particularly at high frequencies, can make it difficult for whales to hear and echolocate – the process of using sound to bounce off objects such as prey to identify where they are.
Aiming to respond to this, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority promoted the ECHO (Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation) program, an initiative to research and understand the impact of shipping on at-risk whales. The program is a collaboration between multiple parties, from the shipping industry to environmental groups and many more. For this initiative, the port was one of the short-listed nominees at the port awards category at the last GREEN4SEA Awards.
In particular, last year, the ECHO program undertook a vessel slowdown trial in order to better understand whether slower ships are quieter. Listening devices were used in the ocean where whales feed. Ships were asked to voluntarily slow down through Haro Strait, and industry responded with strong participation in the trial.
The first-of-its-kind voluntary Vessel Slowdown Trial last summer aimed to study the relationship between slower ship speed, underwater noise levels, and effects on the endangered southern resident killer whales in one of their key feeding areas. The study showed that when vessels slow down, underwater noise is reduced, and so does the impact on whales.
More specifically, the ECHO Program has structured its focus areas based on three threat categories:
- acoustic disturbance – Whales use sound to find their food, mate, communicate, and avoid danger. Vessel activity increases underwater noise and can impact these function.
- physical disturbance – Vessel traffic has the potential to impact whales through ship collections or by altering their normal behaviour and movement.
- environmental contaminants – Contaminants can accumulate in a whale body, potentially impacting reproduction, development, and immune system functions.