Environmentalists Petition Obama Administration to Reduce Whale Mortality in California

026A cargo ship passes through San Francisco Bay.  Photo: Joseph Doolen.

Over 50 whale carcasses struck by ships have been discovered along the California coast in the past decade, including at least six last year and a humpback found on a San Pedro beach last month. Among those found in the Bay Area in 2010 were three blue whales, one of which was pregnant.

In response to the rising number of casualties, environmental groups petitioned the Obama Administration on June 6 in an effort to protect marine mammals from lethal ship strikes in California’s coastal waters.  The proposed 10-knot (11.5 mph) speed limit for vessels 65 feet or larger in National Marine Sanctuaries would cut the current limit in half.

The four groups, the Center for Biodiversity, Friends of the Earth, the Environmental Defense Center and Pacific Environment claim enforcement of the guideline would be especially helpful in protecting endangered blue, humpback and fin whales.

The petition, filed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA (and the Department of Commerce which it is a part of) is similar to an emergency petition filed in 2007 in response to four blue whales in the Santa Barbara Channel being killed by ship strikes.

After a year in deliberation, NOAA designated the narrow shipping lanes near the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the southern California coast as a “Whale Advisory Zone.”

“Many of our petitions would go unanswered by the Bush Administration.  Under Obama, at least we can engage them, get them to hear us out in a timely manner,” said Friends of the Earth director Marcie Keever.

California has nearly 9,300 square miles of National Marine Sanctuary off its coast, the most of any state. Three of its four sanctuaries encompass most of the northern and central California coastal waters. The Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, and Monterey Bay sanctuaries extend from Bodega Head in the north to the town of Cambria in the south.

The petition cites several scientific studies to justify the new speed limit. The studies, largely based on North Atlantic right whales, find that the likelihood of whale mortality and serious injury increase drastically when ship strikes occur at speeds greater than 10 knots.

“While we cannot likely change the behavior of whales and other species so as to avoid ship strikes, we can and must regulate vessel practices to minimize this risk,” the petition states.

John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association claims that the petition guidelines are largely based on opinion, not fact. He echoed the industry’s view that more scientific evidence is needed.

“The petitioners have mostly cherry-picked their data.  We are early in this process [of regulating shipping vessel speed] and they’re kind of jumping the gun here,” Berge said.  He did not propose any alternatives to the 10 knot limit.

However, Berge agreed with statements from multiple shipping groups expressing interest in altering shipping lanes to avoid whales.

But in places like San Francisco Bay, ships cannot avoid crossing through sanctuary waters, said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The petition is based on sound science,” said Sakashita. “It is in the interest of these companies not to be killing whales,” she said, citing crew and cargo safety as well as corporate public relations.

Multiple government officials echo the mantra that more scientific study and analysis is needed before implementing the new speed limit.

Sakashita added that studies have shown that advisory seasonal speed limits in the Channel Islands’ Whale Advisory Zone are often ignored by ship captains. Such advisories are voluntary and usually set at 10-12 knots between May and December.

Chris Mobley, superintendent of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, confirmed this, adding that all large vessels’ speeds are tracked by Automated Information Systems (AIS).

“They are not slowing down [when under advisory], but they may be taking other cautionary measures. They are getting warnings,” Mobley said.

In December 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service implemented mandatory seasonal-based shipping speed limits in response to the inefficacy of the voluntary advisory limits.

Another environmental advantage of the proposal cited by the petitioning groups is a reduction in ships’ greenhouse gas emissions that comes with lower vessel speed. Shippers’ primary concerns with this are scheduling and loss of revenue as a result of lost time. To avoid this, companies may try to circumvent the rules.

“Going outside the sanctuaries to avoid the speed limits can actually lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” Berge counters.

Keever and Sakashita also expressed a desire by conservation groups to reduce the number of shipping lanes coming into ports, making a smaller area of the sanctuaries vulnerable to whale strikes.  Such an option would coincide with the shippers’ purported desire for an alternative to a new speed limit.

NOAA said that the petition is currently under review.

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About Joe Doolen

I am a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. My aim is to write on science and international issues with a focus on environmental policy and justice. Topics range from local and domestic politics to international communications and culture, and anything cool about science really!!
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