As summer arrives and more traffic heads for northern waters, there is more interaction between merchant vessels and Arctic wildlife. The decreasing extent of summer sea ice has increased the volume of vessel traffic in the Arctic, including a rising number of voyages through the Hudson Strait. And at the same time of year that vessel traffic increases, about 60,000 beluga whales migrate to the Western Hudson Bay – the largest summering concentration of belugas in the world, according to World Wildlife Fund Canada.
Given the rising levels of traffic, WWF-Canada has issued a new guide designed to help mariners in the Hudson Strait identify and avoid marine mammals. The new guide includes two large posters for the bridge: a chart that will help mariners identify whales, seals, polar bears and walrus, and maps of marine mammal habitat in both summer and winter. The guide lists phone numbers so mariners can report sightings and incidents at both the national and community level, and provides operational guidance when close to or encountering marine mammals. It also provides guidance on traditional native hunting areas.
The posters include a guide to Canadian minimum standoff distance requirements. Limits vary by species and by vessel size, but in general, speed must be reduced to seven knots or less within 0.2 nm of the nearest marine mammal, and the minimum distance for a vessel of any kind is 100 yards.
Ship traffic affects marine mammals in many ways: noise from ships can make it difficult for whales to communicate with each other; passing ships can disrupt feeding patterns, and will often drive marine mammals away from their usual habitat; ship strikes can seriously injure seals denning on sea ice; and in the rare event of a spill, pollution from sewage, greywater, ballast water and fuel could damage marine mammal habitats.
“As someone who has been on the bridge of ships for more than 35 years, I would say that a guide like this on board will be an invaluable resource to inform mariners on species they may encounter, and help mariners avoid particularly sensitive species and habitats," said Captain David “Duke” Snider, the CEO of Martech Polar Consulting (and a regular guest contributor to MarEx).