Interview with Sharon Livermore, International Fund for Animal Welfare

By Hannah Schartmann.

A warm welcome and thank you very much for the interview. Can you tell me a bit more about you? What is your background?

Thank you for the invitation to be interviewed! Ever since I was a small child, I’ve had a strong passion for animals and conservation, and a deep connection to the ocean. These interests took me on a path to study for an MSc in Marine Mammal Science about 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve worked on several research projects studying whales and dolphins around the world; from the Isle of Man and Wales, to New Zealand and Australia. After some time researching these animals in the field, I decided to focus my energy on protection and conservation work in the NGO sector, which is what led me to IFAW.

You are working in the marine conservation program at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. What are you currently working on?

IFAW has several marine conservation projects, both big and small, underway around the world that work to reduce threats to marine animals and the places they call home. The areas we are most focused on are entanglements in fishing gear and threats from the shipping industry – namely underwater noise and ‘ship strikes’, where ships collide with whales. One of our major projects works to address all of these threats – our campaign to save the North Atlantic right whale, a species that is on the brink of extinction.    

Bycatch, marine plastics, noise pollution, collisions with ships, climate change… There are a lots of threats to marine mammals. What do you think is the greatest danger to marine mammals and why?

Habitat loss is the biggest threat to this group of animals, and actually involves a combination of all of these threats – they all contribute to reducing habitat quality and availability for marine mammals. Ocean noise pollution degrades acoustic habitat, which is critical for their survival, and the presence of fishing gear and shipping traffic can result in both injuries and death. Habitat protection in the form of well-designed and well-managed Marine Protected Areas can aid by removing these threats from critical habitat, increasing the health of populations and the marine environment, and ultimately making them more resilient to the effects of climate change.

One threat to marine mammals is a collision with ships. Are there species, which collide most often with vessels? And why?

Ship strikes are both a welfare and conservation concern for many species of whale. Anywhere that critical whale habitat and busy shipping routes overlap, there is a risk of ship strike and some species and populations are more at risk than others. In particular, those found close to developed coastal areas and busy shipping lanes. This is the case for the North Atlantic right whale, which is critically endangered. The behaviour of these whales may put them at increased risk as they feed at or just below the water’s surface making them very difficult to detect. Also, their main migratory route places them in close proximity to major shipping lanes and ports throughout eastern US and Canadian waters, particularly when they are feeding or during calving. 

Collisions with vessels often result in severe injury or death. Do you know how many whales died each year immediately after a collision?

Unfortunately, quantifying the ship strike problem is very difficult. Records from evidence such as reports from vessels involved in the strike and necropsy results from stranded whales that have washed up on beaches under-represent actual incidents. Many mariners do not know about reporting requirements for ship strikes and in many cases ship strikes may go unnoticed – even an animal as large as a whale pales into insignificance against a 300 metre cargo vessel.

This makes it a huge challenge to determine the number of ship strike deaths around the world. Experts suggest the ratio could be as many as 20 undetected deaths for each detected dead whale. We urgently need to put conservation measures in place to protect at-risk whales.

Which injuries have whales, which have collided with ships? Are there any “typical” indications?

For those whales that are not killed immediately, a collision can result in horrific and serious injuries. Some of the injuries recorded in live and stranded whales that have been involved in collision are blunt trauma resulting in major internal injury, deep propeller scars, and severed spines, tail flukes and fins. 

A science team including IFAW’s Sharon Livermore, and researchers from Marine Conservation Research Ltd. (MCR) worked on a visual and acoustic cetacean survey in an oil and gas lease area during April and May of 2013. The objective of the work was to provide initial baseline data for wildlife diversity and ocean noise around Kangaroo Island in the Great Australian Bight. Photo: IFAW Marine Campaigner Sharon Livermore.

Are there any studies which have analyzed the long-term survival of whales after ship collisions?

Sadly, a whale that has sustained a serious injury from a ship strike will often suffer a slow, painful death. Researchers in different parts of the world have photo identification catalogues with many images of whales and dolphins that have sustained injuries from vessel strikes, but I am unaware of any studies on long-term survival. What is known is that the speed a ship is travelling when it strikes a whale is directly linked to the severity of the injury the whale will sustain. Therefore, ship strikes with faster vessels are more likely to be fatal.

What can be done to prevent collisions with vessels? Are there any international laws or regulations?

Separating ships and whales through routing measures is the most effective way to reduce ship strike risk, but where this is not possible, slowing vessels down is the next best option. Lowering vessel speeds to 10 knots and less in critical whale habitat is widely accepted as an achievable ship strike risk reduction measure and while strikes may still occur at these speeds, the risk of serious injury or death is lower.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the UN agency responsible for developing and adopting measures to protect the environment from the adverse impacts of shipping, and that includes ship strikes. IFAW works with IMO and governments to consider international changes to shipping lanes and we advocate for reduced speed limits at a global scale. We also work with the shipping industry to raise awareness of the ship strike issue and educate mariners about the requirement to report strikes to the International Whaling Commission. 

Thank you very much for the interview. If you would like to learn more about her work, you can visit her website  https://www.ifaw.org/eu/programs/marine-conservation or https://www.ifaw.org/uk/people-and-ideas/experts/sharon-livermore

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