Untangling Threats to Whales

What we know about whale threats and deaths

In recent years, an elevated number of whale strandings have occurred along the east coast of the United States. These unusual mortality events have rightly raised concerns, especially with regard to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Misinformation about the causes of these whale strandings is jeopardizing the public’s ability to address the real threats to whales and implement evidence-based solutions that can help. We at Ocean Conservancy are following these events closely and want our members and ocean lovers everywhere to have accurate information about whale threats. By sharing information from trusted sources, we can help protect whales from the true pressures upon them.

What are the known threats to whales?

Historically, the largest threat to whales was commercial whaling. For example, commercial whalers had hunted the North Atlantic right whale to the brink of extinction by the late 1890s. Commercial whaling is no longer a threat, but many species have never recovered from that time.

Today, whales are still extremely sensitive to human activity in our ocean. Through many years of research, the top threats to whales have been identified, many of them interwoven, thusly compounding the impacts. These threats include: 

  • Climate Change:  Warming waters caused by climate change have put extreme pressure on our whale populations. Whale food sources, such as zooplankton and small fish, are shifting poleward or declining altogether, affecting whale calving grounds, feeding areas and migration routes. Whales are now often sighted outside their usual regions, migrating much further to find ideal habitats and shifting their foraging patterns into busy shipping lanes and fishing grounds. This situation puts them at greater risk of being struck by vessels, entangled in fishing gear and exposed to noise pollution.
  •  Fishing Gear: Active, lost or abandoned fishing gear can present serious hazards to whales, which can become entangled, hampering their abilities to swim, surface for air, feed, and, in extreme cases, causing death. There are fishing strategies and technologies available that can mitigate entanglement. 
  • Vessel Strikes: With the shift to a global economy, vessel traffic along U.S. coasts has increased, significantly overlapping with whale calving grounds, feeding areas and migration routes. Encounters between whales and medium to large ships can lead to fatal injuries with mothers and calves being at particular risk. Restrictions on vessel speeds (10 knots) to deter contact in these nearshore areas do exist.
  • Marine Noise:  Noise in ocean waters, especially from port activity, ships, and fossil fuel surveying, pile driving and other construction, can impair whales’ abilities to carry out their normal activities, including detecting and avoiding large ships. The offshore wind industry produces underwater noise through High Resolution Geophysical (HRG) surveys to help determine the placement of wind turbine structures and through pile driving to build turbine foundations. Many of the sounds from HRG surveys are of a frequency range that falls outside of whales’ hearing range. Several noise minimization and avoidance strategies are being explored and used to reduce the impact of pile-driving noise, including restrictions on when this activity can occur, as well as quiet foundation designs that avoid pile driving altogether.

Ocean Conservancy works to safeguard the ocean, its communities and all life that dwells within. Protecting whales —and other marine animals—from vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglement and other top threats is a top priority.

Ocean Conservancy’s vision is of a healthier ocean, protected by a more just world. Our work focuses on creating an ocean where wildlife and communities can thrive—including whales. We advocate for strong marine mammal protections, as well as long-term ocean planning that maps out and strategizes overlapping ocean uses, helps minimize conflict and protects the environment.

Whale breaching

Addressing vessel strikes and fishing-gear entanglements are essential parts of what we do.. We work with lawmakers and industry officials to reduce cargo ship speeds, which could decrease whale fatalities by up to 78%. Through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative®, Ocean Conservancy leads more than 150 public- and private-sector entities to catalyze solutions for removing ghost gear and preventing new ghost gear from entering our waters. We collaborate with a wide range of partners to understand the threats to our ocean. We are closely following noise pollution, and working to implement evidence-based solutions to reduce impacts from sound pollution, specifically noise from vessels. 

We must prioritize climate change solutions to protect marine wildlife like whales.

No part of our work is as vital as understanding and mitigating the connections between increasing effects of climate change and our ocean—including the behavior of marine species like whales in the face of warming waters. Given the the importance of addressing the climate change crisis to protect our ocean and whales, Ocean Conservancy supports the transition away from oil and gas and towards clean renewable energy sources, including offshore wind. Yet as offshore wind is developed, this new industry, like others in our ocean, will impact our ecosystems and marine life, whether from vessel traffic, underwater noise pollution or building structures in the water. 

Humpback Whale

Ocean Conservancy is committed to ensuring offshore wind energy is developed responsibly, avoiding, minimizing and mitigating unintended consequences for wildlife, our ecosystems and communities andmonitoring closely as it expands, adaptively managing to account for new scientific findings and observed effects to our ocean resources.  See our principles of responsible offshore wind here.  To protect our ocean, we need to confront the climate crisis. Take action with Ocean Conservancy to advocate for clean ocean energy and protect our ocean and wildlife for the future. 

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