Working together to reduce underwater noise effects on whales
Since 2014, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program has undertaken numerous collaborative research initiatives to better understand and manage the cumulative effects of shipping activities on whales in our region, in particular the southern resident killer whale.
The marine transportation industry has been an instrumental partner in many of these initiatives, including voluntary vessel slowdown studies, which began in 2017. Underwater noise from ships can interfere with whales’ ability to hunt, navigate and communicate, but slowing ships down can reduce that noise. Ship slowdown studies and other research are helping to inform the development and implementation of measures that reduce the effects of marine traffic on this iconic species.
About southern resident killer whales
Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered under both the Species at Risk Act in Canada and the Endangered Species Act in the U.S. Since last year, the population has declined to 75 individuals. Over the last year, both countries’ governments have continued to highlight the need to develop and implement measures to reduce underwater noise generated by ships.
In May 2018, the federal minister of fisheries and oceans and the minister of the environment and climate change formed the opinion that southern resident killer whales face imminent threat to survival and recovery. In October 2018, the Government of Canada announced measures have been taken, continue to be taken, and will be taken by government and others to address three imminent threats to the survival and recovery of the whales. Voluntary vessel slowdowns of large commercial piloted ships in Haro Strait and other zones were referenced with respect to reducing the threat of acoustic disturbance.
About the slowdown trials
In both 2017 and 2018, voluntary vessel slowdowns in Haro Strait were conducted in Haro Strait, a key feeding area within southern resident killer whale critical habitat. This research demonstrated that reducing ship speeds is an effective way of reducing both the underwater noise generated at the ship source and total underwater noise in nearby habitats, which is, in turn, predicted to benefit the behaviour and feeding success of the southern resident killer whale.
During the trials, temporary underwater microphones, known as hydrophones, were installed on the sea floor under the inbound and outbound shipping lanes to measure underwater noise from ships. Hear what one of our participating ships sounds like before and during the slowdown trial.
Before the slowdown
Courtesy of ECHO Program
During the slowdown
Courtesy of ECHO Program
The number of ships participating in the slowdown increased from 61 per cent in 2017 to 87 per cent in 2018, which demonstrates the marine transportation industry’s ongoing commitment to reducing underwater noise levels from ships and supports the recovery of the southern resident killer whale population.
See background information and final reports for past voluntary vessel slowdown trials below:
- 2018 voluntary vessel slowdown – Background
- 2017 voluntary vessel slowdown – Background
- 2017 voluntary vessel slowdown – Final report
2019 voluntary vessel slowdown trial
In 2019, the ECHO Program, working in close collaboration with marine transportation industry partners, is coordinating the implementation of another voluntary vessel slowdown trial over an expanded geographic area that includes both Haro Strait and Boundary Pass, which was identified by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 2019 as key killer whale foraging areas.
The goal of the trial is to maximize the benefits to the southern resident killer whales by ensuring as many ship operators as possible participate in the trial by slowing their ships down. Ship operators are encouraged to transit at reduced speeds through the Haro Strait and Boundary Pass voluntary vessel slowdown trial area where safe and operationally feasible.
- Haro Strait and Boundary Pass. In 2019, Fisheries and Oceans Canada identified both Haro Strait and Boundary Pass as ‘Key Foraging Areas’ for southern resident killer whales
- The total distance of the 2019 voluntary vessel slowdown trial area is 29.6 nautical miles, an increase of 15.1 nautical miles from previous ECHO Program ship slowdown trials
- The trial area includes:
- Two optional slowdown areas where vessels should only participate if it is navigationally safe for them to do so
- Transition zones before and after the trial area where ships are encouraged to slow down to the appropriate speed prior to entering the trial area
- Download a full sized map here
- June 1 – October 31, 2019 depending on whale presence
- A whale monitoring period will commence on June 1, 2019
- Large commercial piloted ship operators are asked to be aware that a slowdown trial will begin once southern resident killer whales are confirmed in the area by hydrophone data and/or trusted observers
- Once activated, the slowdown trial will continue to September 30, 2019 with two-week extensions to no later than October 31 if the whales are still confirmed present in the area
- 14.5 kn or less speed through the water for vehicle carriers, cruise and container ships
- 11.5 kn or less speed through the water for bulkers, tankers, ferries and government ships
- Transiting at these reduced speeds could add between 16 and 28 minutes to the total transit time, depending on the ship type
- Aiming for at least 80 per cent of ships to participate by slowing to the appropriate speed through water targets for their ship type
- Participation rates will be reported out regularly throughout the trial in the ECHO Program voluntary vessel slowdown trial newsletter.
Monitoring and reporting
- The ECHO Program will monitor underwater noise levels before, during and after the trial using hydrophones located at Lime Kiln and Boundary Pass. Southern resident killer whale presence will be monitored and recorded by hydrophone and human observers. Participation rates will be reported by the Pacific Pilotage Authority and monitored by AIS data. At the end of the slowdown period, the ECHO Program will conduct an analysis to evaluate the trial’s effectiveness.
Success requires collaboration
The logistics of coordinating a voluntary vessel slowdown trial outside of the port authority’s jurisdiction are complex and involve collaboration with many others including federal agencies, shipping associations, ship agents and operators, pilots, and others. The ECHO Program team is very grateful for the ongoing participation and support of our many partners who contribute to the continued success of these kinds of voluntary initiatives.
Here are a few links and additional resources where you can learn more about what is being doing to help the whales in our waters.
- ECHO Program
- Transport Canada Oceans Protection Plan
- Transport Canada Whales Initiative
- Department of Fisheries and Oceans – Southern resident killer whale critical habitat, proposed enhanced management area and key foraging areas
Some of our partners have resources available online:
- An underwater hydrophone is operated by the Whale Museum and SMRU Consulting Ltd. just off Lime Kiln State Park, San Juan Island and is supported financially by the ECHO Program for our research. Listen live at stream101.com/start/smrucons/
- Have you spotted a whale? Report your cetacean (whale, dolphin, or porpoise) and sea turtle sightings to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network through their WhaleReport app, on their website or by email.
- The Whale Trail organization has established a network of land-based viewing sites on the west coast of Canada and US. See the Whale Trail maps at thewhaletrail.org
Questions or feedback
For more information on the slowdown please contact the ECHO Program team at [email protected] or Vancouver Fraser Port Authority Operations Centre which is available 24/7 at 604.665.9086. Visit the ECHO Program website for more information.