Study finds that human activity poses increased risk to whales and dolphins

The State of European Cetaceans 2019 report reveals that whales and dolphins are facing a growing risk from the human population, leaving them more vulnerable to threats such as ship collisions, commercial whaling, and pollutants.

Humpback whale
Published: December 12th, 2019 at 10:14 am
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The State of European Cetaceans 2019 is the fourth in a series of annual reports produced by marine conservation charity ORCA, which uses data collected by volunteer citizen scientists on board ferries and cruise ships.


“This report is the product of the dedication and hard work of our amazing volunteers, and we owe it to them to do everything we can to make sure it can be used to better protect our oceans,” commented ORCA Director Sally Hamilton.

Bottlenose dolphin

Volunteers collected data on more than 12,500 individual whales, dolphins, and porpoises recorded during 2,840 encounters over a 12-month period. The data provides an essential means of monitoring the health of these animals’ populations, and can be used to determine any hotspots (areas frequently used by high numbers of cetaceans).

The Bay of Biscay was found to be a particularly vulnerable area for whales. In this location, a high volume of marine traffic overlaps with a large whale population, with devastating impact: at least 16% of all fin whale deaths here were due to ship strike.

As a result of their findings, ORCA are working with Brittany Ferries and University of Portsmouth in a study to determine how the distribution of fin whales in the Bay of Biscay is affected by the density of marine traffic. The study aims to reduce the number of large whales being hit by ships in areas where both overlap in high densities.

In total, the report recorded 29 species of cetacean: most frequently recorded was the harbour porpoise, followed by common dolphins, humpback whales, and fin whales. This year’s report also detailed seven species never before recorded by ORCA, including Dall’s porpoises, northern right whales, and Peale’s dolphin.

Their presence gives weight to requests for governments to put in place further protections in order to better protect cetaceans in UK and European waters.

Armed with a growing body of data after each annual report, the paper’s authors are calling on governments to implement measures to offset the damaging impact of marine noise, make urgent changes to plastic use, and call for Japan, Norway, and Iceland to cease all commercial whaling immediately.

The long-term data collected during ORCA’s annual reports provides an important means of gaining better understanding of whales and dolphins off our shores, informing decisions about how best to protect and preserve them now and in the future.


Hamilton explains, “We need government, industry, and researchers to work together to address the terrifying deterioration in the health of our oceans and ensure that we can safeguard it for future generations.”


Sam is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for wildlife and the outdoors.


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