Whales Hitting Boats – Conservation and Conflict

We live in a time of high human activity and urbanization, particularly along our coasts. Human and wildlife conflict is a complex issue that has intensified within the last century. Humans are learning to coexist with wildlife species, especially those whose populations are starting to increase or recover due to aggressive and successful conservation measures. The intersection of humans and wildlife manifest in day-to-day activities that sometimes require an “all hands-on deck” approach to address and manage. Recent interactions between boats and whales have demonstrated the need for immediate and coordinated action.

Spatial Overlaps

A recent interaction between a humpback whale and a boat occurred off Plymouth, Massachusetts in late July 2022. In a viral video, a humpback whale breached and landed on the bow of a small recreational fishing vessel.  This video is a stark reminder of how interactions between humans and animals in the wild can go wrong. This incident resulted from a rather unique situation. Large schools of menhaden were aggregating close to shore where commercial and recreational fishermen were targeting striped bass, which feed on these schooling fish. Three juvenile humpback whales discovered this dense patch of menhaden and began feeding in the area, very close to shore and the recreational fishing vessels. Overlap of the recreational vessels and whales raised concern for public safety and safety of the whales.

Protecting Whales

Quickly, NOAA and their partners were flooded with questions about what was being done to protect the whales. We have guidelines for responsible whale watching, which include maintaining a distance of at least 100 feet from humpback whales. In addition to these guidelines, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits harassment of marine mammals. As the whale and large boater presence in the area persisted, local, state, and federal agencies promptly came together to increase education and enforcement efforts to mitigate the growing concern for public and whale safety.

The Massachusetts Environmental Police and the Town of Plymouth Harbormaster conduct routine patrols of nearshore waters throughout summer months. After the July 24 incident, they increased these patrols, along with the U.S. Coast Guard, and NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. They wanted to provide responsible marine species viewing information to the large number of boaters in the area and to enforce the MMPA.

NOAA has also partnered with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a Plymouth-based conservation organization. They developed See A Spout, Watch Out, a boater outreach program aimed at helping to keep boaters and whales safe. Throughout the ongoing presence of the whales in the area, the group conducted outreach to shore based whale watchers and boaters.

Multi-Agency Collaboration

Boaters on the water may have noticed an increase in patrols. What they didn’t see was the  hours of planning and coordination that took place to maximize limited resources among collaborating agencies. Law enforcement agencies are tasked with enforcing a diverse array of regulations, often with limited resources. Environmental law enforcement at the federal level relies heavily on partnering with state and other federal agencies to enforce federal and state laws at the local levels. Mendy Garron, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office’s Regional Marine Mammal Emergency Response Coordinator, worked with partners to assess the ongoing risk to boaters and whales. “Coordination among agencies is critical to execute enforcement priorities and education efforts for these types of events,” suggests Garron.

Garron was appreciative of the U.S. Coast Guard facilitating coordination among the local, state, and federal partners to get information out to the local communities quickly, and to increase patrols. Enforcement patrol vessels were able to assist in setting up a safe perimeter around the whales when they were feeding and make contact with several boaters to provide additional information.

Managing Conflict

Managing these types of human and wildlife overlaps can be extremely challenging. Increasing wildlife populations, coupled with high human use areas and environmental shifts in a changing climate, will likely increase these situations, particularly in coastal communities. Garron further explains that, “Enforcement agencies serve a critical role in managing these conflicts to maintain a safe environment for everyone involved. Collaboration among enforcement agencies and conservation groups provides a much-needed approach to inform and mitigate these overlaps in our environments.”

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