As steam-powered ship technology evolved in the 1800s, reports of ships striking whales began to appear. The number of collision has steadily increased through the years, especially with the rapid globalization of the planet and the ever-increasing number of bigger, faster, louder ships on the water. In the case of endangered, endemic or geographically-isolated cetacean populations in particular, these collisions pose a significant conservation threat.
Over the last 40 years, scientists have estimated that about seventy cetaceans are dead following a collision with cargo ships traveling through the Mediterranean. To reduce these numbers, a French organization “Souffleurs d'Ecume” has been developing for the last 7 years a navigation system that would allow ships to receive real time information on the position of cetaceans along their shipping route.
Over 10 cargo ships are already equipped with the Repcet System - Reperage en temps reel des Cetaces, - as they often navigate very close to the Pelagos Sanctuary, extending between France, Italy and Monaco, and where over 3,000 cetaceans migrate to each year to feed and reproduce.
The Repcet System operates in a very simple manner: each observation of a marine mammal by a crew member is transmitted in real time by satellite to a server. This server then gathers all the data and diffuses alerts to all ships equipped with Repcet and that may be susceptible to encounter the animals.
The collaborative nature of the system means it relies on the density of commercial maritime traffic. Other vessels are also welcome to voluntarily contribute to the system by reporting cetacean sightings, especially military vessels, scientists at sea, whale watching operators, and pleasure boaters.
Nevertheless, members of the Souffleurs d'Ecume organization realize that Repcet is not the ultimate solution, and they encourage ships to reduce their speeds around crucial cetaceans locations. But it remains hard to convince shipping companies to reduce their speeds, as it would result in an increased transit time for cargo ships and potentially a loss of money.
Collisions with vessels are the number one cause of mortality of whales in the Mediterranean. Noise pollution, water pollution and increased sea temperatures are further causes of distress for cetaceans in the area. Hopefully, Repcet will encounter success around the Mediterranean, and might be developed for many more cargos traveling around the world.