The right whale mandatory ship reporting system: a retrospective

PeerJ. 2015 Mar 31;3:e866. doi: 10.7717/peerj.866. eCollection 2015.


In 1998, the United States sought and received International Maritime Organization-endorsement of two Mandatory Ship Reporting (MSR) systems designed to improve mariner awareness about averting ship collisions with the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Vessel collisions are a serious threat to the right whale and the program was among the first formal attempts to reduce this threat. Under the provisions of the MSR, all ships >300 gross tons are required to report their location, speed, and destination to a shore-based station when entering two key right whale habitats: one in waters off New England and one off coastal Georgia and Florida. In return, reporting ships receive an automatically-generated message, delivered directly to the ship's bridge, that provides information about right whale vulnerability to vessel collisions and actions mariners can take to avoid collisions. The MSR has been in operation continuously from July 1999 to the present. Archived incoming reports provided a 15-plus year history of ship operations in these two locations. We analyzed a total of 26,772 incoming MSR messages logged between July 1999 and December 2013. Most ships that were required to report did so, and compliance rates were generally constant throughout the study period. Self-reported vessel speeds when entering the systems indicated that most ships travelled between 10 and 16 (range = 5-20 +) knots. Ship speeds generally decreased in 2009 to 2013 following implementation of vessel speed restrictions. The number of reports into the southern system remained relatively constant following a steady increase through 2007, but numbers in the northern system decreased annually beginning in 2008. If reporting is indicative of long-term patterns in shipping operations, it reflects noteworthy changes in marine transportation. Observed declines in ship traffic are likely attributable to the 2008-2009 economic recession, the containerized shipping industry making increased use of larger ships that made fewer trips, and diminished oil/gas US imports as previously inaccessible domestic deposits were exploited. Recent declines in shipping activity likely resulted in lowered collision risks for right whales and reduced their exposure to underwater noise from ships.

Keywords: Economic recession; Endangered whale; International Maritime Organization; North Atlantic right whale; Ship collisions; Shipping industry; US energy imports; Underwater noise.

Grant support

Funding to operate and administer the Mandatory Ship Reporting system—the program under study here—was provided completely, and shared equally, by the US Coast Guard and the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Staff time (e.g., salaries) to conduct data analysis and prepare the manuscript was provided by NMFS’s Office of Protected Resources. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.