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Whale Roadkill: Not a Thing of the Past Quite Yet

Changes to shipping lanes near SF Bay may help, but proposals for the Santa Barbara Channel Islands fall short of the mark

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) recently announced vessel lane changes for the approach to San Francisco Bay, the Santa Barbara Channel, and the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex, will involve extending some shipping lanes, narrowing the width of others, and shifting the southbound lane in the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary one nautical mile north. These routes pass through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOOA) Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries where endangered blue, humpback, and fin whales feed and congregate.

photoname Photo courtesy Great Whale ConservancyThe proposed route adjustments are a response to the high number of whale deaths from ship strikes
over the past six years.

Although the IMO’s goal is to adjust shipping routes along the California coast to protect whales from collisions with giant cargo ships, oil tankers, and cruise ships is laudable, the proposal doesn’t go far enough. 

The San Francisco Bay entry extensions and plans to begin an observer program will certainly help if, first, the ships accept the observers, and second, if they are willing to make course adjustments to avoid areas with a high density of whales. 

But the change proposed for the Santa Barbara area is unlikely to have any impact, says Dr. Gershon Cohen, co-director of Earth Island Institute’s Great Whale Conservancy (GWC) project. “Moving the transit lane one mile will be unlikely to reduce the number of strikes because the whales are going to follow the krill, and in a relatively short period of time the krill patch can shift a mile in any direction.  Even with the best of intentions, it will be difficult for the ships to spot the whales and often too late to avoid a collision when they do,” he says.

The IMO route adjustments supported by the Coast Guard and NOAA are a response to the high number of whale deaths along the California coast from ship strikes over the past six years.  The Great Whale Conservancy advocates moving the Channel Islands shipping lanes entirely out of critical feeding habitat by sending the ships south of the Northern Channel Islands, at least for the months of July through October. According to GWC, the cost of rerouting the ships further from the coast is estimated at being a few dollars per container. “It’s a travesty to kill these magnificent beings when saving them would cost pennies for each item in those containers,” says GWC co-director Michael Fishbach.

No one knows exactly why whales are so vulnerable to ship strikes. These sentient beings, among the largest animals on the planet (blue whales being the largest), are extremely agile — which leaves scientists puzzled as to why they cannot avoid ships.  It is hypothesized they become disoriented by the multiple sounds generated by engines, rudders, sonar, and hull movement from so many ships close by. There is also some evidence to suggest the high speeds of the ships make it difficult for the relatively slower-moving whales to avoid them.

There are many reasons why whales must be protected from potential ship strikes.  Because of dwindling numbers and low reproductive rates, each species listed above is protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.  But perhaps the most compelling reason for saving whales is the fact that they meet the conditions for being considered legal ‘persons’: they possess the largest and most complex brains on the planet; they have intricate cultures complete with different dialects; they are self-aware, autonomous, and capable of emotion. Which makes every whale death a significant tragedy.

The IMO should support moving the routes completely out of the whale’s critical feeding areas.  Until this happens, we can only expect these tragedies to continue. 

For more information, check out the video below on ship-whale collisions.

Laura Bridgeman
Laura Bridgeman is director of Sonar, an organization that advocates for dolphin and whale personhood, and Campaign & Communications Specialist at Earth Island's International Marine Mammal Project.

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