The challenge

Preventing whale strikes

Collisions with ships are one of the main human-causes of baleen whale deaths around the world. Humpback whales are among the most frequently reported victims of such collisions, but we know little about the impacts of ship strikes on whales in Australian waters.

With humpback whale populations recovering and shipping increasing in the Great Barrier Reef region - due to increasing tourism and resource exports - collisions between ships and whales are likely to become more frequent.

Knowledge of where humpback whales exist in the ocean and how that overlaps with shipping routes is key to preventing collisions.

Our response

Building a picture of humpback whales in the ocean

Our understanding of the distribution of humpback whales in their breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area comes from surveys of whales and predictions based on spatial modelling of their preferred habitats. We know the routes that freight ships take along the Queensland coast thanks to hourly 'pings' that track their locations.

 ©National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.

Our statisticians are combining data on humpback whale distributions from multiple sources with knowledge of their habitat preferences and shipping data to quantitatively assess the risk of ship strike to humpback whales in the Great Barrier reef region. This is an example of using informatics to turn data from disparate sources into useful information for evidence-based decision making.

In the future, we'll be able to apply our research outcomes to other species and different areas. We'll also be able to create tools that help decision makers account for the impacts of increasing shipping traffic on population recovery and conservation.

Our research partners are Murdoch University, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States and Blue Planet Marine in New Zealand. The work is funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Marine Mammal Centre and by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The results

Calculating the risk of collisions

We are developing a modelling framework to conduct a quantitative assessment of the risk of ship strikes to humpback whales in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) using current humpback whale distribution data from peak times of their breeding season.

We are also determining the coastal distribution of humpback whales around major coastal and port areas in the GBRWHA to assess the risk of ship strikes in areas close to the shore.

Ultimately, this research will provide shipping planners with a useful tool to assess the risk of collisions with humpback whales when they plan shipping routes in the Great Barrier Reef region.

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