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Is E-Commerce Responsible for the Rise in Whale Deaths?

Growing demand for goods might be colliding — literally — with a rising number of humpbacks off the New York area’s shore

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There are a lot of things you expect to see on a typical summer day in New York City. One sight that may come as a surprise should you look out to sea, however, is humpback whales — because humpback whales don’t come to New York City … right? 

Wrong.

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“That was exactly the case up until 2011,” Paul Sieswerda, executive director and founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Gotham Whale, said. “But then the number kept growing exponentially every year afterwards.” 

As humpback whales visit New York waters in ever-increasing numbers, they’re also increasingly at risk from vessel strikes in shipping lanes. And, as the industrial sector continues to thrive, the commercial real estate industry is a part of the problem — although it’s largely unaware of it. 

Sieswerda, a naturalist who’s spent decades studying marine life, was working aboard the American Princess Cruises sightseeing ship in the New York area counting seals in the winter of 2011 when he started getting reports from his fishermen buddies that they had seen whales. As an experiment, his team began counting whales to see whether customers would be able to view whales from the ship.  

The first year, just five humpback whales were spotted from American Princess voyages in the months of June through September. In the 2022 summer season, the crew counted 600.

And it’s a pretty impressive sight to see. 

Adult humpbacks typically range from around 45 to 55 feet long, and can weigh up to 50 tons — or the equivalent of 25 cars. While these majestic creatures didn’t always frequent the waters of New York City and New Jersey, for the past 12 years or so scientists have been tracking their increased presence around the New York Bight apex — a triangular body of water that runs from Cape May, N.J., to Montauk Point at the tip of New York’s Long Island. 

Things began to take a turn, however, in 2016 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started logging “unusual mortality events” for humpback whales in the region.

The deaths sparked debate around the cause, with some blaming offshore wind farms, with their mooring lines and electrical cables in the whales’ paths. But Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, or AMSEAS, through whale necropsies, determined a large number of those whales were actually being killed by blunt-force trauma from vessel strikes. 

“Since January of 2017, we’ve responded to 90 large whales in the New York Bight area, Southern Connecticut, Southern New Jersey,” Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist for AMSEAS, said. “Those 90 whales represent about a third of all the animals that are stranded up and down the Eastern Seaboard, so not a small number. Out of those 90 whales, 49 of them were humpback whales, and 28 of those had evidence of suspected vessel strike.”

The perfect storm

The increased presence of humpback whales in the New York area unfortunately collides, so to speak, with increased shipping traffic in the Port of New York and New Jersey. And, the commercial real estate industry is in part contributing to this traffic. 

The e-commerce, logistics and industrial CRE sectors have been booming since before the pandemic, with e-commerce gaining such speed during COVID lockdowns that some ports faced traffic jams, with ships idling offshore until they had the chance to dock. While that congestion has certainly eased, the steady flow of barges into New York and New Jersey continues — and the ships are getting bigger. 

According to data from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the overall number of TEUs (20-foot equivalent, the shipping container unit of measure for the logistic industry) moved in the Port of New York and New Jersey rose from 5.5 million TEUs in 2012 to 9.5 million in 2022 — with 3.1 million units in January to May of 2023 alone. That TEU volume increased from 7.5 million units in 2020 and roughly 9 million in 2021. These containers transport most of the world’s manufactured goods and products.

It’s important to note that while the number of TEUs moved increased significantly, the number of ship calls increased only slightly in the past few years, with larger ships being far more efficient in the TEUs’ transportation ( and no direct correlation between the number of TEUs moved and the number of ship calls). 

According to Savills research, while capital markets’ sales volume through the first half of 2023 decreased around 50 percent from last year, “well-located, port-centric assets with access to the most densely populated pocket of the country continue to find buyers.” The research report notes that Invesco and Bridge Industrial’s recent acquisitions of 8 Peach Tree Hill and 230 Belmont, respectively, in Northern New Jersey both traded for around $300 per square foot, highlighting the in-place demand for new leased Class A industrial assets. “Meanwhile, Bridge Industrial’s acquisition of 525 West Linden underpins the value port-centric sites continue to hold,” the report reads. 

Further, the market is only six quarters removed from the lowest vacancy rate and strongest rent growth period ever observed. Economic uncertainty will continue to hold back activity through the remainder of the year. However, Northern New Jersey is well positioned for long-term appreciation.”

And the headlines back it up. The industrial sector is one of CRE’s most coveted and competitive investment sectors — one that’s already proven to be almost crisis-proof. It makes sense that port-centric assets are flourishing, but in the water there’s often an unseen cost. 

It’s impossible to tell which ships are striking whales and other marine life — although propeller marks can give scientists a clue — but a lack of overall awareness about what swims beneath ships’ hulls is not helping matters. Simply put, it’s very likely that many shippers don’t even realize whales are in their paths. 

“The first time I heard it I felt surprised, similar to a lot of people, I think,” said Mark Russo, head of industrial research for Savills North America. “I write about these topics [for a living], and I hadn’t heard about it prior to maybe six months ago.”

From a broader research perspective, Russo said that at the time that unusual whale mortalities were beginning to be documented, a notable shipping event happened — the Panama Canal Expansion, which allowed for much larger vessels to pass through it. “I can’t confirm or deny that larger ships are contributing here, but the expansion was completed in 2016 and allowed for post-Panamax vessels — the real mega-ships — to pass through it.”  

As mega-ship activity picked up, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey invested in its port to accommodate those larger ships, which are more efficient and becoming more common. Accommodations included raising the height of the Bayonne Bridge. 

“So, larger vessels was the first change,” Russo said. “The other thing that’s been happening is increased trade volume via TEUs, which are essentially containers. This  has been happening at all ports, but the Port of New York and New Jersey has been successful in picking up market share because, from an industry standpoint, they’re in competition with other ports, especially the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.”

The Port of New York and NJ ranks second in the list of ports by volume of TEU units in 2022, just behind the Port of Los Angeles at 9.9 million units, per Port Authority data.

In terms of international trade, the bulk of those ships are coming from China, India, Vietnam, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, France and Hong Kong — transporting everything from furniture to appliances, to food and beverage, to cars.

Mega-ships and international trade aside, there’s also a seemingly simple yet very complex conundrum underway: Most of the ships, commercial real estate-related or not, that come into the New York Bight do so via the Ambrose Channel, which coincides with where the fish are — and therefore where whales are spending significant time feeding. 

‘Playing in traffic’

Humpbacks are most commonly associated with the warm waters of Maui, Hawaii, in February through April — where every year up to 10,000 whales can be seen from the shore as they gather to mate, birth and raise their young — and Alaska in the summer months where they feed. But there are a few theories behind their stop in New York, and they’re not coming for culture, overpriced avocado toast or the bright lights of Broadway. 

Instead, they’re coming for the Atlantic menhaden, a small fish but an important food source for the oceanic giants whose numbers also had been increasing in the New York Bight.

“It was pretty evident that they were feeding on the menhaden,” Sieswerda said. “You would see the whales lunge-feeding on these — what the fishermen call — bait balls.”

Lunge-feeding is when whales surface from below their prey, trapping fish in their mouth and filtering the water through their baleen. As for a bait ball? Imagine a mass of fish swirling around, being chased by a predator. Their attempted escape mechanism is to form as tight of a ball as possible, with each fish trying to get to the center of the ball, essentially saying, “Eat the fish on the outside, not me!” And adult humpback whales can eat up to 1.5 tons of fish per day — yep, you read that right.

Gotham Whale is an all-volunteer organization with seven whale-watching boats that funnel alerts to larger vessels when whales are in the area.

In 2019, research conducted by Sieswerda and others identified four 2.4-kilometer lunge-feeding areas in the New York Bight — each of which overlaps with the shipping lanes. The fish were there first, of course, but this now creates a dangerous game of chicken as the whales cross the lanes and surface to feed. 

More data is needed to confirm the shipping lanes are where the vessel strikes are happening. They also could be occurring when the ships are traveling at cruising speeds further off shore before slowing down coming into port. 

Still, the lunge-feeding spots being in the path of behemoth ships is a whale-sized problem. 

“I equate it to them playing in traffic,” DiGiovanni said. 

Also, while the ships are unaware of the whales, the whales are also busy feeding. “Have you ever been in a buffet and bumped into somebody because you were looking at the food?” DiGiovanni said. “It’s a logical thing if you’re distracted.”

Further, these ships can be a quarter-mile long, so their sound source is actually pretty far away from the bow. 

You don’t know what you don’t know

DiGiovanni and his team had a busy week when Commercial Observer spoke with him.

Turtles had washed up dead or injured on shores, but AMSEAS was also able to rehabilitate and release a number of turtles at Jones Beach Energy and Nature Center. 

“It’s always difficult when on the whole you deal with trying to understand why animals are dying,” he said. “But we have very positive moments too with days like turtle releases.”

AMSEAS has responded to 1,300 animals in need since its inception in 2016. As with whales, there’s often a human-induced cause behind the turtle deaths, with a number of loggerhead sea turtles dying with evidence of vessel strikes or entanglement, and leatherbacks — the largest of all turtles, reaching up to 6 feet long — also being struck.  

“I think our biggest challenge to helping any of these animals is just the lack of awareness,” he said.  

DiGiovanni is very clear that he’s not saying not to ship — or fish. Not by any means: “What we’re saying is, be aware of what the challenges are and what’s out there. We  want people to be connected to the environment.”

And, with sustainability winds already at CRE’s back, the industry is in a pretty good position to begin asking, “How do we engage a little bit more effectively here?” he said.

After all, shouldn’t that sustainability momentum extend out to our oceans—which sustain all life on earth— and their inhabitants? 

From Sieswerda’s perspective, generally speaking, “there have been no attempts to mitigate the [shipping traffic vs. whales] conflict to date. I don’t believe they want to hit whales and they’re also in a difficult position where the ships are so large that they can’t take evasive maneuvers, and they could hit a whale and not even know it.” 

There’s also no easy real-time warning of when whales are in the areas, other than alerts from ships like Gotham Whale’s fleet, which can then communicate to a large vessel that a whale is in its path. Even then, it’s not an easy case of switching lanes, since the ships risk running aground. 

“One of the things that Gotham Whale is providing is a better understanding of when whales are likely around, and that type of information is key in the analysis of what can be done to avoid them,” he said. 

Humpback whales were removed from the list of endangered species only in October 2022. DiGiovanni used the example of  the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale — only an estimated 340 exist today — as an example of how all whales should be protected. “The threats that face the right whale face all other whales, and we really should be thinking about the same type of [protection] process and make that intrinsic.” DiGiovanni said. 

Given that whales are in the area, ships slowing down significantly as they enter ports can help. DiGiovanni likens it to driving down a road when you see a “Slow, Children Playing” sign, or his own reaction if  he sees a ball roll out in front of his car. “Sure enough, a kid will come straight out after the ball, not even looking at the car. 

“Nobody wants to hit anything, so the biggest challenge is making sure people know that whales are here, and it’s not a rare occurrence anymore — it’s a normal occurrence,” DiGiovanni said.  

Collecting data on the whales’ whereabouts and feeding patterns is also key to avoid vessel strikes, but it’s a costly endeavor and significantly more resources are needed.

When North Atlantic right whales are spotted today, NOAA fisheries will issue a warning of closures and slow zones to ships in the area. Other whale-tracking measures include acoustic technologies to detect whale songs, and wave gliders — autonomous surface vehicles which travel for thousands of miles listening and recording whales’ communications — although those work only if the animals are vocalizing. 

“It’s not an easy lift, but [the commercial real estate logistics sector] probably has a wealth of data about what’s going on in the ocean from sightings,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s about working together, being aware that whales are out there and making sure that sightings are being reported.” 

After all, real-time accounts can be critical.

“Nobody likes to change plans [or shipping routes] but the fact is, whales are there and this disconnection is our weakest link,” he said. “The only other way to solve this is if you’re monitoring the area regularly, which is really, really costly to do. We can do surveys, aerial surveys and vessel surveys, but there has to be a way that we can come together as partners and say: ‘All right, let’s collect information.’ ” 

Gotham Whale has a team of researchers that can take that information, compile it and develop it into something useful for either regulation or management of the situation. “The importance of having peer-reviewed literature is so important because the agencies cannot act on global information.” 

DiGiovanni thinks there are a lot more opportunities to collect data, and the effort could carry only a nominal cost if a lot of hands were  on deck. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that the ocean environment is dynamic, whereas shipping is not. You might have peaks and troughs in shipping, but it’s still pretty predictable, whereas the animals that are in that same environment move for various reasons — one being food source availability.

After all, “if you’re hungry, you’re not going to stay at a closed restaurant too long,” DiGiovanni said. 

A new dawn

Awareness is therefore key, and DiGiovanni hopes that the commercial real estate  industry can first be aware of what’s happening in the waters that surround their properties or that it utilizes for shipping, but also that the industry incorporates the habits of these animals into waterfront development plans.  

“Maybe there’s a creative group that can come together and say, ‘Why don’t we monitor for whales and dolphins, or work with groups like Atlantic Marine to make sure if we’re developing near the water on the water that we’re not only monitoring for marine life, but we also make it part of our community?’ ”

As an example, DiGiovanni pointed to Maui, where embracing and protecting marine life is intrinsic in communities — perhaps because whales, dolphins, turtles and other animals have always been regular sights from its shores and part of the community’s lives. “Why are we not trying to do that here in New York?” DiGiovanni said. “The reason why I chose Atlantic Marine Conservation Society as a name is because it takes a community coming together.”

Today, AMSEAS has five staff members and roughly 150 volunteers, and the work it does is based on raising donations and writing grants. Its work spans New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island. “But we have to figure out how to continue to support that,” DiGiovanni said, “because going from getting one to three animals a year to 15 large whales alone a year is a big difference.”

Cathy Cunningham can be reached at ccunningham@commercialobserver.com