MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s largest container shipping company, will reroute its ships along the west coast of Greece to reduce the risk of collision with endangered Mediterranean sperm whales.
The company says the decision follows talks with four leading environmental non-governmental organizations, which urged swift action to protect the 200 to 300 sperm whales remaining in the region. By redirecting its ships, MSC becomes the first shipping line to take the action to protect the population.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), OceanCare and WWF Greece are working in collaboration with the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, which has been studying the eastern Mediterranean sperm whale population since 1998. The studies have identified the Hellenic Trench, west and south of the Peloponnese and southwest of Crete, as critical habitat for the species. Sperm whales dive year-round and concentrate in the 1,000-meter depth contour, directly in the path of shipping lanes.
“As a global leader in container shipping and logistics, we have a responsibility to ensure that our cargo operations have a positive impact, reflecting our long-standing commitment to the conservation and protection of the ocean and marine wildlife,” said Stefania Lallai, Vice President Sustainability, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company. “Collaboration with NGO partners is key to understanding and taking action to protect endangered sperm whales along the Greek coast.”
The area of greatest concern is currently a major container shipping route. More than half of the sperm whales found stranded along the Greek coast show evidence of collisions with ships, or ship strikes. Statistically, only a very small proportion of ship strikes are reported and detected. In many cases, sailors on large ships are unaware that they have collided with a whale.
“Whales found dead on shore with propeller marks and cuts are just the tip of the iceberg. Up to 20 times more die on the high seas and are never recorded. We are also seeing fewer whales in our annual research surveys than in previous years, which is a major concern,” explains Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, Scientific Director of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute. “We fear that, if urgent action is not taken, deaths from ship strikes will cause this already small population to become extinct very soon.”
Earlier this year, the Greek Ministry of Defense, through the Hellenic Hydrographic Office, in collaboration with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Island Policy and the Greek shipping industry, issued an official warning to inform mariners about the presence of marine mammals in the Hellenic Trench. The NAVTEX (NAVigational TEleX) advisory instructs boaters to be on the lookout for whales and to try to avoid collisions with them.
Male sperm whales reach about 16 meters in length (some individuals even up to 20 meters) and can weigh up to 41 tons. Outside the Mediterranean, sperm whales are listed as “Vulnerable,” but due to their small size and geographic isolation, the Mediterranean population is listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“By making small route changes, MSC is making a significant difference to these endangered whales. This population is endangered and one ship strike is one ship strike too many. Now we need other shipping companies to show similar leadership: if all shipping traffic using this area made these small adjustments, the risk of ships colliding with sperm whales would be reduced by nearly 75%,” the NGO coalition says in a statement. “It is necessary to divert ships now to change the course of sperm whales in the eastern Mediterranean.”