Cruise control: Why we need more regulation for ship speed and waste in B.C. waters

By Kristen Powell and Sam Davin, Marine Conservation and Shipping

Chances are that many things in your home crossed an ocean to get there — the laptop you use for work or school, your clothes, your desk or couch, maybe even some of the food you ate today arrived via shipping container. 

Marine shipping is the backbone of the global economy, with more than 80 per cent of the volume of internationally traded goods carried by sea. Despite this, most Canadians have little to no direct interaction with ships.  

But for coastal communities and marine wildlife, especially whales, ships present an everyday risk.  

Stern of large container vessel.
© Shutterstock

That’s why our team at WWF-Canada works with government, industry, stakeholders and rightsholders to push for ambitious measures that drive transformational change to enhance the sustainability of marine shipping and protect wildlife.

The higher the traffic, the higher the risk to marine species

Cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises) are especially vulnerable to the effects of shipping. Ships travelling at higher speeds are more likely to collide with marine mammals, and ship strikes at high speeds are more likely to be lethal.

There’s also the issue of chronic pollution from ships. Waste, or what we call operational discharges, is routinely disposed of overboard. Our team estimates that in 2022, more than 200 billion litres of ship waste were dumped in Canada’s ocean territory. That’s equal to more than eighty thousand Olympic swimming pools!  

This waste includes harmful and persistent substances that can accumulate in the bodies of marine life over time and, for smaller organisms, can result in significant malformations or even be fatal. For cetaceans, their longevity puts them at risk of bioaccumulating high concentrations of contaminants, including those associated with long-term health impacts ranging from compromised immune systems to fertility complications to higher cancer rates. 

Northern Shelf Bioregion subregions. © Chris Liang / WWF-Canada

The Great Bear Sea is vast — and shipping’s growing fast

The marine shipping team at WWF-Canada recently completed an analysis to further our knowledge and understanding of the risks posed by commercial shipping in the Great Bear Sea (also known as the Northern Shelf Bioregion) to inform ongoing and future conversations about marine planning.

The Great Bear Sea, which covers about 100,000 square kilometres from the middle of Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border, is a biodiversity hotspot — home to thousands of species including endangered whales, rare cold-water corals, Pacific salmon and migratory seabirds. 

But increasingly, wildlife and coastal communities aren’t alone in these waters. 

The region is rapidly developing as a central feature of B.C.’s economy, undergoing port and coastal infrastructure expansions to support increasing ship traffic and global trade demands. But endless growth is unsustainable. At WWF, we have a role to play in shifting the narrative from endless growth to sustainable use. 

To understand the problem, we need to visualize the data

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) feeding in the coastal waters near Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada.
© WWF-Canada / Chad Graham

To encourage dialogue about marine shipping in the region and to equip local stakeholders and rightsholders with essential information, our team set out to answer three questions. 

  • Where does shipping traffic overlap with at-risk cetacean habitat?
  • Where are ships travelling the fastest? 
  • Where are ships discharging the most waste? 

The first step was to map cetacean habitat. In total, there are 11 at-risk cetacean species that call these waters home. The map below highlights sensitive areas for humpback, fin whale and killer whale species, using the Species at Risk Act designated critical and important habitat as well as historical observational data.

As you can see, much of the region is a hotspot for several species, making the Great Bear Sea/Northern Shelf Bioregion a vital habitat for whales year-round.  

© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada

The second step was to understand where commercial vessels are operating. The map below shows vessel traffic density visualized using 2022 automatic identification system (AIS) data (which tracks ship positions so vessels can avoid collisions). Red and brown areas are where traffic was busiest, and yellow and orange is where traffic was quieter.

© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada

How fast is too fast?

Our report looked at speed data per ship type through critical and important habitat, with a focus on ships travelling at average speeds greater than or equal to 11 knots, or a little over 20 kilometres an hour. We use 11 knots as a threshold speed because it’s the speed where the probability of lethal ship strikes to whales increases by up to 80 per cent.  

But is 11 knots really that fast?  

To give a better sense of scale, speed and maneuverability in water, a massive ship travelling at 20 knots in coastal waters is a bit like an 18-wheeler barrelling down the highway at 140 kilometres an hour. But the momentum of the cruise ship at 20 knots is going to be nearly 800 times greater than at of an 18-wheeler at 140 kilometres an hour. Chances are that a moose walking onto the road wouldn’t be lucky enough to survive a collision with the truck; likewise, a ship of any size or type travelling at high speed has a significantly reduced reaction time to slow down or alter its course to avoid a potential ship strike with a whale. 

Let’s compare the maps below, which show some of the ship types with the highest average speeds. The first figure shows average speeds for cruise ships, and the second figure shows average speeds for ferries and yachts.

© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada
© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada

You can also see different use patterns. Ferries, for example, mostly hug the coast and commute in sheltered waters, while large cruise ships tend to use the Inside Passage and offshore waters as a straightaway between destinations. 

Now let’s look at average speeds for cargo ships and liquid tankers in the images below. Comparatively, these types of vessels are moving more slowly than passenger ships, but they still travel at speeds that pose notable risks to whales.

© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada
© Chris Liang / WWF-Cananda

There were relatively few tankers in 2022, but these figures will start to look very different in the next few years as LNG-Canada completes its massive pipeline export terminal in Kitimat. Beginning in 2025, we will see shipping traffic increase throughout the Douglas Channel and greater Great Bear Sea region. 

Cruise ships. © Timothy Eberly / Unsplash

The major takeaways from the combined findings for all ships are surprising: out of 794 total vessels that travelled through the NSB in 2022, 713 vessels transited through critical and important habitat and 97.8 per cent of these vessels were travelling at average speeds greater than or equal to 11kt.  

59 billion litres of waste 

Using the same model we developed for our No Dumping campaign, we found that 59 billion litres of waste were discharged in the region in 2022. The majority of this waste is scrubber washwater, the byproduct a loophole technology that enables ships to burn the world’s most polluting marine fuel: heavy fuel oil. Our model also demonstrates that 60 per cent of waste was produced and discharged in critical habitat or important habitat. Scrubber washwater and greywater (waste water from baths, sinks and appliances) figures for the region are shown in the maps below.  

© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada
© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada

Speed plus waste: mapping the overlap 

When we map ship speeds and polluting discharges together against critical and important habitat, we begin to see where the high-risk areas are. In the below figure, the darker, more saturated purple cells represent areas where both ship speed and ship waste values are highest, revealing the most high-risk areas for at-risk cetaceans.

© Chris Liang / WWF-Canada

Looking at it this way, it’s clear where high ship speeds and high waste volumes overlap: almost everywhere within critical and important habitats (and beyond), from the Dixon Entrance all the way down to North Vancouver Island. Combining these results with our current knowledge of important and critical habitat, we unveil an unambiguous picture of short- and long-term risks to cetaceans in this important bioregion. 

The solution? Regulate, collaborate and innovate

It’s high time we take steps to protect these high-risk areas. So, what do we do about this? Here are our top three recommendations: 

  • Ships should slow down to safe operational speeds of 10 knots or less in critical and important habitat areas when the presence of whales seasonally increases, particularly in nearshore coastal waters where re-routing ships is not possible. Speed restrictions should be supported by monitoring and enforcement, especially in heavily trafficked routes and near ports, such as near Dixon Entrance, the Kitimat Fjord System and the Inside Passage.  
  • Collaborative efforts between regulators, NGOs, rightsholders and maritime stakeholders should be prioritized to identify and expand existing vessel-avoidance and re-routing measures – such as slowdowns or exclusion zones or zero discharge areas – within the bioregion to reduce adverse shipping impacts in identified high-risk areas. All measures should be advanced through co-management with the region’s coastal First Nations.   
  • Canada can and must do more to control ship-source pollution. A great place to start would be to ban scrubbers, which are the number one source of ship pollution in Canadian waters, and to take steps to define and implement discharge restrictions as part of the MPA Protection Standard. Canada promised this at IMPAC5 in 2023, and now we’re ready to see them take action. 

To dig even deeper into the data, you can read the full WWF-Canada analysis here.