My research project investigated the interactions between cetaceans and vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar during tuna fishing season, with the aim of highlighting any existing and potential causes for conflict. The Strait of Gibraltar is a unique marine environment and due to its strategic geographical location, underlying topography, and, therefore, very productive waters is both a maritime traffic and cetacean hotspot. As the second busiest vessel channel in the world, potential for human-wildlife conflict is high, with the seven commonly observed cetacean species being at risk of disturbance, entanglement, ship strikes and injuries.
Collisions are often – voluntary or involuntary – unnoticed and unreported; this affects traceability and, ultimately, conservation goals. Some mitigation efforts, such as the relocation of shipping traffic lanes or vessel speed reduction, have been discussed and/or introduced in other maritime/cetacean hotspots. In the Strait, some fishing, commercial and recreational activities, e.g. whale watching, are partially regulated; however, unfortunately, laws are often poorly enforced or not adhered to, resulting in illegal fishing and/or inappropriate interactions with cetaceans. This dynamic may be exacerbated in the summer, with the start of recreational tuna fishing seasons, which add pressure to an already exploited environment.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of cetacean/vessel interactions, my research investigated the behaviour of both stakeholders towards each other, through a combination of desk-based research and field surveys. The findings showed that disturbance and ship strikes are a constant threat to cetaceans, and highlighted the urgent need for: 1) further research on the topic and more effective collision mitigation measures; 2) improved communication among all relevant stakeholders, to facilitate any lobbying attempts with regulatory bodies; and 3) wider awareness raising efforts, to highlight the significance of this issue in the study area, which often involves endangered or critically endangered cetacean species.