Impact of shipping on Arctic whales to be studied in new research

Published:

Arctic shipping routes and their effect on local whale populations are to come under the spotlight of an ambitious new research project.

Scientists from Heriot-Watt University will spend the next three-and-a-half years investigating the effects of shipping on the marine mammals, including Beluga and Bowhead whales, in the Arctic Ocean. Dr Lauren McWhinnie and Professor Teresa F. Fernandes, from the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, are part of a 35-strong consortium of international partners who started the research this week.

The Heriot-Watt team has world-class skills and expertise in the area of marine environmental impacts assessment, and in this project we will be able to bring our specific skills in the assessment of stressors on marine mammals.

Professor Teresa Fernandes, Director of the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences

The team is utilising satellite technology to secure real world geospatial data to identify vessels and explore options to manage this traffic as it passes through areas of known importance for whale populations, including calving or feeding grounds. The research will focus on the Northern Sea Route, which is more than 5,500km long. The ultimate goal is to limit the risks posed by these vessels to local sea life, such as by reducing the likelihood of lethal ship strikes by slowing their speed or re-routing them away from ‘high risk’ areas.

Dr Lauren McWhinnie said: “The Arctic has been warming; and ice melting, at an unprecedented rate in recent years and this has led to an increase in the amount of vessel traffic using these previously inaccessible sea routes.

“We know that in many, more southerly waters, populations of whales have been negatively impacted by increases in shipping activity and a considerable amount of effort is now being made to reduce these effects and protect vulnerable species.

“In the Arctic, we have an opportunity to ensure that shipping activity develops in a sustainable manner with minimal impacts on wildlife. Our research as part of the ePIcenter project will help to inform future management measures taken by the shipping industry to mitigate the risks their activities pose to Arctic whales.”

As a result of global warming, many new northern ‘ice routes’ are staying ice-free during the summer months. These shipping routes are coming under increased scrutiny particularly in regards to their potential benefit to supply chains as a result of reduced transit times. While this corresponds with reduced fuel usage and greenhouse gases emissions, it is not yet clear what impact this is having on the Arctic environment and wildlife.

According to the WWF, shipping traffic increased 300% between 1992 and 2013, and continues to increase at a rate of 2-3% per year. Ship strikes are known to be one of the leading causes of death for endangered and vulnerable whale populations, including Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right whales, of which fewer than 500 remain following hundreds of years of hunting.

The 42-month research project, known as ePIcenter, is funded through the European Horizon 2020 programme and led by the Port of Antwerp.

It has a truly global scope, with a number of large scale case studies that will focus on the main shipping routes from Europe to Canada and the US, as well as new trade routes such as the Northern Sea Route and the new Silk Road routes. Technology innovators and environmental experts will collaborate to develop new solutions, which increase the efficiency but also the sustainability of current and future global supply chains.

Professor Teresa Fernandes, Director of the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, said, “This is fantastic news. I am delighted that we have been awarded this prestigious grant, jointly with a fantastic international consortium.

“The Heriot-Watt team has world-class skills and expertise in the area of marine environmental impacts assessment, and in this project we will be able to bring our specific skills in the assessment of stressors on marine mammals.”

ePIcenter aims to show how artificial intelligence algorithms can be combined with data related to marine mammals, and information on management measures for marine wildlife protection, to ensure more sustainable and efficient shipping that reduces risk of impacts such as ship strike or noise exposure.

 

Craig McManamon

Communications Officer

E: c.mcmanamon@hw.ac.uk