A new study published in the journal Conservation Biology finds that humpback whales face threats from offshore platforms, shipping routes, and pollutants related to the oil and gas industry. Researchers found that humpback whales migrating from breeding grounds off the coast of Africa to feeding grounds around the Antarctic are forced to navigate around offshore oil and gas rigs and vessels in shipping lanes, and encounter potentially harmful toxicants.

“Knowing not just where animals are going, but what kind of human activities and potential threats they are facing gives us insight into how we can effectively help them while still maintaining the services that we as humans rely on in the ocean,” Sara Maxwell, co-author of the study and employee of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, told the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The scientists used satellite tags to study the migration patterns of humpback whales in the South Atlantic Ocean. Whales’ extensive journeys can span more than 4,970 miles between breeding grounds and Antarctic feeding grounds. According to a Stanford Woods press release, these whales spend most of their time in the national waters of Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria, and Angola – areas “overlapped with offshore hydrocarbon operations and major shipping lanes.”

During the period of the study, whales spent approximately 41.4 percent of their time near oil and gas platforms. The majority of their time was spent within 200 miles of the coast, an area over which countries are granted rights over the “exploration and use of marine resources,” such as energy production.

“There are indications that oil production in these coastal regions has and will increase in the coming years,” the study’s lead author, Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants program, said in a press release. “So gaining a better understanding of the movements of whales and quantifying the degree of overlap with anthropogenic activities will help assess the potential risks to this population, and identify migration strategies that should be considered to better protect whales.”

Migration patterns of humpbacks along the western African coast in the South Atlantic Ocean have not been the subject of extensive study until now; however, there is significant data on the risk ships pose to endangered whale species off the coast of California. Programs such as the ones that have been put in place to attempt to reduce the risk of ship strike to whales along the west coast could potentially be mimicked in the Atlantic if scientists continue to gather information on whale migration in that region.

Image via: flickr: Standford Woods, T. Collins: WCS

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.