Communicating the issue of ship strike

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Communicating the issue of ship strike
Fin whale that was brought into Portsmouth on the bulbous bow of a cargo ship in December 2019

James Robbins continues his monthly blogs about his PhD investigating ship strike and how he will be undertaking research to better understand this threat.

With so many threats to marine life, including high-profile issues such as plastic pollution and climate change dominating media coverage and in some cases research focuses, it can be easy for lesser known issues to become overlooked. It can be argued that ship strike isn’t talked about much, with it likely not registering on the top 10 threats to marine life if a member of the public was asked. This is understandable as there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to ship strike. We still don’t know how often they happen, the areas where they happen most frequently, or how many animals survive collisions. Without baseline knowledge such as this, it’s perhaps difficult to get coverage of the issue. However, occasionally a whale is brought ashore that was killed by a collision with a vessel, and this visual aspect makes a story much more tangible. 

In 2019 there were two ship strikes that were well-covered in the UK media, firstly the humpback in the Thames (https://theconversation.com/thames-humpback-whale-killed-by-ship-the-casualty-of-a-global-problem-125284), and a fin whale that was brought into Portsmouth in the final weeks of December (www.orcaweb.org.uk/our-work-orca-news/item/more-details-emerge-about-portsmouth-ship-strike-incident). While we’re of course saddened by these events, they do provide a key opportunity for us to talk about the wider issue which happens globally and is likely underreported.  Undertaking research to better understand ship strike is a major part of my PhD, but sharing findings is also integral to making a positive change. This includes talking to the public through blogs such as this, social media, and traditional media exposure such as radio and TV interviews and newspaper coverage. As a result of these recent cases of ship strike events and coverage in the media, we have had the opportunity to share our work, and highlight this global issue. We hope that as our project progresses and we have novel findings to share, we’ll be able to continue talking about this problem, and potential ways to save whales. 

Scientific conferences are also the perfect opportunity to share findings and discuss ideas. In December 2019, I attended the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, along with Sally, the Director of ORCA. We presented two posters, one on a recently accepted scientific paper on common dolphin distribution, and another on our ship strike project. We were also represented on a poster by colleagues in the Mediterranean, and a postgraduate student from Plymouth University, whose work was showcased in the 2018 State of European Cetaceans report. Posters are displayed for the duration of the conference, and take centre stage during scheduled sessions with the presenter talking through their work. This format can foster more discussion than a standard 15 minute talk or 5 minute speed talk, as we were presenting our work for 6 hours throughout the week. There were plenty of inspiring discussions, and we met with people using similar methods, or in some cases very different methods to answer similar questions. 

I have also just returned from Galway, where the UK & Ireland student conference for marine mammalogists was held. I presented a 15 minute talk here on our planned work over the next three years. This was a good exercise in vocalizing my research plans and designing some easily-understood diagrams and slides. This event also fostered connections with students across several countries - widening our support networks and allowing discussions of potential future collaborations and partnerships. 

After two conferences and the Christmas break, I’m now ready to dive back into planning for the upcoming fieldwork season, and processing data which will help to fill in the blanks in some of these unknowns in a global issue. The next blog will outline some of the methods we will be using - both in the field, and behind a desk.