PhD project starts investigating ship strike

Author // James Robbins

PhD project starts investigating ship strike

James Robbins has embarked on a new journey researching the threat of Ship Strike - although a global issue, there is a lot not known about it.

Ship strike is a global issue affecting a wide variety of large marine animals, including seals, sharks, turtles, dolphins, and whales. These incidences gained media attention in October when a humpback whale died in the Thames and was found to have an injury to the head which is consistent with damage sustained from a collision with a vessel. For more information about this event, we have recently written a story which can be read here:

Animals are most at risk when high densities or aggregations coincide with large volumes of vessel traffic; however, not all species are at equal risk due to different habitat preferences leading to variable overlap with vessels, and behaviour also influences the likelihood of collisions. Some species spend longer periods of time at the surface, within reach of the draught of a passing vessel. Responses to oncoming vessels also vary, with some species avoiding them, and others not responding at all. 

Despite ship strike being a global issue, there is still a lot that is not known about it, and how best to avoid it. To help to narrow some of these knowledge gaps, I have recently embarked on a PhD on the subject, with a focus in the Bay of Biscay. I’m working at and funded by the University of Portsmouth, and supervised by Dr Sarah Marley, Professor Alex Ford, and ORCA’s own Lucy Babey. 

ORCA will be providing support and advice throughout the three-year project, and I’ll be collecting data from a Brittany Ferries vessel. I will also be using ORCA’s historic dataset, and tasking Wildlife Officers and Cruise Conservationists to supplement my dataset with some additional behavioural data which they’re well placed to collect during their time on-board ferries and cruise ships. Thankfully I’m already familiar with ORCA’s data structure and procedures as I have recently finished working for them as ‘Science Officer’ - managing the entire dataset and leading on several research projects and publications. 

Having only spent a month at the University of Portsmouth on this project, there is still a lot of work to be done in the next three years, and my current plan is to do the following: 1) Investigate whale behaviour in response to oncoming large vessels, 2) Analyse patterns of vessel traffic and model spatial and temporal overlap with whales to determine the risk of collisions 3) Recommend appropriate mitigation to reduce the numbers of whales at risk of collisions. 

Throughout the project, I’ll be providing regular updates on my progress and presenting some interesting findings from my experiences and the ship strike literature. By the next update, we’ll have submitted a paper for publication which showcases initial findings of fin whale behaviour in response to vessels and will also be presenting these findings at a world-wide marine mammal conference in Barcelona.