Collisions between vessels and marine fauna

Look out for marine fauna and report any collisions.

Collisions between vessels and marine fauna can injure or kill animals, injure people on board and damage vessels. Keep watch for marine fauna, travel at safe speeds and keep an appropriate distance in areas where animals may be present.

Vessel strikes

Marine fauna particularly susceptible to collisions include dolphins, dugongs, turtles, whales and whale sharks. These species are protected in Australian waters under Commonwealth (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999), state and territory legislation.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has developed a National Strategy for Reducing Vessel Strike on Cetaceans and other Marine Megafauna, which provides guidance on understanding and reducing the risk of vessel collisions and the impacts they may have on marine megafauna.

Although collisions with marine fauna can happen anywhere in Australian waters, the risk of collision is greater in breeding areas and along seasonal migration routes. Collision risk also increases in shallower waters where a vessel has less under-keel clearance, leaving an animal less room to avoid the vessel.

Impacts on humans and vessels

Smaller vessels that collide with large marine species can cause serious injuries to those on board and can damage or capsize the vessel. Collisions with large commercial vessels can also result in significant damage to the hull, propellers, shafts and rudders.

Impacts on fauna

Collisions between vessels and marine fauna may result in injuries or death. Propellers and hulls can cause significant damage to even the largest animals, and the size, type and speed of the vessel also influence the severity of injury. Animals may not die immediately from the collision but may instead die slowly from their injuries. Collisions can also have population-level effects on marine fauna, especially for threatened species.

How you can prevent incidents

Be aware of high-risk locations and take extra precautions:

  • Follow minimum approach distances and best practices as outlined in the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching 2017 or your local state/territory legislation.
  • Maintain a good lookout. Where possible, posting extra lookouts in known migration and breeding areas to scan ahead with binoculars on the bridge or from the bow of the vessel, including at night.
  • Reduce speed, especially in low visibility, in known migration and breeding areas, and when entering and leaving ports, bays and harbours. The faster a vessel is travelling, the less time both the person in charge of the vessel and the animal have to react to avoid collision.
  • Be aware of any special management zones, ‘caution zones’ or seasonal exclusion zones that may exist to protect particularly susceptible species.

Commercial vessels operators should conduct a risk assessment as part of their Safety Management System (SMS), especially if operating in areas where marine fauna are likely to be present. The risk assessment should include control measures to reduce the risk of collisions with marine fauna.

When you approach marine fauna, you should:

  • not enter or remain in the caution zone (as prescribed by the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment) if an animal shows signs of injury, distress or disturbance
  • keep the speed constant and not operate at a speed more than 6 knots or at a speed that creates a wake
  • remain to the side of the animals; do not follow the animals or wait in front of their direction of travel or approach them head on
  • do not enter the caution zone if a calf is present.

If an animal approaches your vessel, you should:

  • slow down to a speed that is less than 6 knots or a speed that doesn’t create a wake
  • move away
  • if safe or practical, turn your vessel’s engines off or disengage its gears
  • not make sudden course corrections.

A Master’s obligation to navigate at a safe speed, and maintain a safe and proper lookout, is outlined in the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG) and enacted in Australian legislation (the Navigation Act 2012).

Reporting collisions with marine fauna

Reporting collisions is important as it helps build a better understanding of when, where and why collisions occur. If your vessel collides with a protected marine species in Commonwealth waters (i.e. three to 200 nautical miles from the coast), you are required to notify the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. Similar reporting requirements may also apply in state and territory waters (i.e. within 3 nautical miles from the coast). Failure to notify is an offence punishable on conviction by a fine.

If your vessel is a commercial vessel and is involved in a collision with marine fauna, you may also need to report the event to AMSA as a marine incident. The Navigation Act 2012 and the Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012 both include obligations to report marine incidents, including where there is significant damage to a vessel or injuries to persons onboard. If you observe a carcass that may be a risk to safety of navigation, this should also be reported to AMSA.

All collisions with marine fauna in Commonwealth or state/territory waters should be reported to the Australian Marine Mammal Centre

Contact the following local groups to report and assist injured marine animals:

  • Queensland Department of Environment and Science: 1300 130 372
  • New South Wales NSW National Parks: 1300 361 967
  • Victoria Whale and Dolphin Emergency Hotline: 1300 136 017
  • Tasmania Whale Hotline: 0427 942 537
  • South Australia 24-hour FISHWATCH hotline: 1800 065 522
  • Western Australia Wildcare Helpline: (08) 9474 9055
  • Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife: (08) 8999 4555
Last updated: 8 November 2023