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Scientists necropsy a fin whale killed by ship strike off central Chile in May 2018.
“The only thing that can have that kind of impact on a blue whale—the largest animal on the planet—is a large ship,” says Mauricio Seguel, a colleague of Toro Cortes who is a veterinary pathologist at the University of Guelph.
The fatality alarmed marine researchers, in part because it was one of three deadly collisions reported in Chilean waters over just 8 days last month.
Earlier this month, 65 marine mammal specialists submitted a plea, published in La Tercera, one of Chile’s most read newspapers, for the government to reroute ships away from sensitive regions, set speed limits in certain shipping lanes, and establish an alert system to warn vessel pilots of nearby whales.
The letter is an outgrowth of an emerging effort to organize Chile’s cetacean scientists under a new Chilean Society of Marine Mammal Specialists.
) Organizers say such a group is needed to focus research and attention on whale, seal, and other marine mammal populations in Chilean waters, which are frequented by an estimated 40% of the world’s cetacean species.
A 2018 study, for example, found that the population of blue whales living off Chilean Patagonia—estimated to number in the midhundreds—can tolerate no more than one human-caused death every 2 years if it is to maintain stable growth.
And last year, a study reported that the number of marine mammals found dead on Chile’s southern coast has been rising in recent decades, with shifting climate patterns one possible cause.
Chile has already taken steps to protect marine mammals.
In addition to strengthening enforcement of existing rules, the researchers want the government to expand vessel speed limits, which research has shown can reduce fatal ship strikes.
Speed limits do exist in a portion of Mejillones Bay, a busy shipping area important for fin whales and other species.
But they are voluntary along the rest of Chile’s coast, says Susannah Buchan of the University of Concepción’s Southeast Oceanographic Research Center.
The department is working on initiatives to educate the public about whales and is talking with researchers about implementing warning systems, she says.
Still, the letter writing effort might represent a sea change in how the nation’s marine researchers work together, Buchan says.