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Whales are facing a big, deadly threat along West Coast: Massive ships

A humpback whale breaches off Half Moon Bay, Calif. In the past decade, at least 60 blue, gray, fin, and humpback whales with signs of ship strikes have been found dead along the West Coast.
A humpback whale breaches off Half Moon Bay, Calif. In the past decade, at least 60 blue, gray, fin, and humpback whales with signs of ship strikes have been found dead along the West Coast. (Eric Risberg/AP)
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One day last May, a container ship entered the San Francisco Bay with extra cargo.

A 45-foot-long dead female fin whale was draped across the ship’s bow. The impact with the ship had broken her back, ruptured her organs and caused severe internal bleeding.

Ten whale deaths were attributed to ship strikes in 2018 — the highest number on record in California since NOAA Fisheries began tracking in 1982. The mortality rate represents an enormous increase from the average 3.4 ship strike victims recorded annually in the five previous years.

Five of the 10 whales that died with boat collision injuries in 2018 were endangered or threatened fin, blue and humpback whales. Despite the prevalence of whale mortalities linked to ship strikes, few rules are in place on the West Coast to mitigate collisions.

Cargo ships are so big that crews often have no idea they struck a whale unless they see a carcass when they reach port. Many container ships that enter the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are more than 1,000 feet long.

“We can’t see the whales if there’s white caps and we can’t see them at night,” said Jeff Cowan, a retired captain and national president of the Council of American Master Mariners (CAMM).

Large whales in U.S. waters haven’t been commercially targeted with harpoons since the 1970s, but ships still pose a significant threat to the giants that swim beneath the ocean’s surface.

“It’s concerning,” said Justin Greenman, who as the California assistant stranding coordinator for NOAA Fisheries works with volunteers responding to injured, stranded or dead marine mammals. “I think that there will definitely be some looking back at this year.”

Vessel strikes are one of the leading human-related causes of whale deaths. In the past 10 years, at least 60 blue, gray, fin, and humpback whales with signs of ship strikes have been found dead in California, Oregon and Washington, according to records from NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, which keeps track of injured and dead marine mammals. Many go unreported.

“If we had all these whales floating around on the water and showing up on beaches nobody would stand for this,” said Michael Fishbach, executive director of Great Whale Conservancy.

Sunken evidence

Scientists are unsure why California ship strikes surged. While fluctuation in numbers is expected since stranding records depend on observed incidents, last year’s body count indicates the issue requires attention. Most experts agree that reported deaths represent only a fraction of ship-strike mortalities.

“One doesn’t mean one, one probably means 10 to 20 are occurring. So, when you have 10, that’s a pretty big multiplier,” said John Calambokidis, a biologist at Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Wash.

Recovery rates are low because struck whales tend to sink upon death. Others are never spotted because of ocean currents and decomposition. Ship strikes alone kill more than 80 whales off the West Coast each year, according to 2017 estimates made by Point Blue Conservation Science and Cascadia Research Collective.

The undocumented losses are important because they deflate a key number used to determine if species need further protection, undercutting arguments for regulatory measures.

On the East Coast, regulation limiting the speed of large ships has been effective in reducing North Atlantic right whale deaths. NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, established the “Ship Strike” rule in 2008 to protect right whales, which remain one of the world’s most endangered whale species. The policy relocated shipping lanes and mandated ships to slow down in specific areas during periods of peak right whale activity.

“It was a challenge. We had a lot of pushback, but we just kept trying to come back to the science,” said Greg Silber, who spearheaded the rulemaking process as a marine biologist at NOAA Fisheries.

Slower ship speeds have been shown to reduce the likelihood of a ship-whale encounter and the lethality of a collision. The number of right whale mortalities has dropped since the rule was created.

“We’ve been able to show that the 10-knot speed limit can really help the situation,” said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium

Beyond speed, other large whale conservation methods include separating ships from whales by rerouting shipping lanes, limiting shipping activity when whales are most active and using technologies to help ships detect and avoid whales.

Members of the shipping industry are adamant that they do not want to harm whales.

“The companies do not want to look like they’re aiming at whales,” CAMM’s Cowan said. “They don’t want to have a picture of a whale draped over its bow. That’s bad in California.”

'A perfect storm'

The interests of many groups converge around the 70-nautical mile stretch between the coast of Southern California and the Channel Islands that make up the Santa Barbara Channel. Whales, specifically blue and humpback, are drawn to the region to feast. The feeding frenzy is a boon for whale watching companies, which navigate the waters alongside thousands of container ships moving in and out of the country’s largest port complex.

Some conservationists believe that rerouting the shipping lane behind the Channel Islands could decrease the risk of ship strikes. But the waters behind the islands are a part of the Navy’s 36,000-square-mile Point Mugu Sea Range. The Navy is resistant to funneling ships through the area they use for missile tests and training exercises.

“It’s like a perfect storm against the whales,” said Fishbach, who advocates that the best method to save whales is to limit ship traffic at night, when they are more likely to feed near the surface.

Efforts to reduce ship strikes in California intensified after five blue whale carcasses were found in the Santa Barbara Channel in September 2007. The carnage triggered NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to start working with the shipping industry, government agencies and nonprofit organizations to reduce ship collisions.

“That’s what really got movement. A mass mortality event,” said Jessica Morten, a resource protection specialist at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Following the blue whale deaths, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NOAA Fisheries to create a mandatory seasonal 10-knot speed limit in the Santa Barbara Channel. After the petition was denied, the center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard accusing it of failing to ensure ship traffic does not jeopardize the lives of endangered species.

“Nobody was doing anything so we decided to sue,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the oceans director at the center, who remains concerned about the issue.

The center lost the lawsuit, but in 2012, the Coast Guard recommended shifting the southbound shipping lane one mile north. The change took effect the next year.

Fishbach called the one-mile lane shift to divert ship traffic away from whale feeding grounds in the Santa Barbara Channel an “insignificant, pitiful effort.”

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary continues to drive efforts to mitigate ship strikes in California, but it doesn’t have regulatory authority beyond its boundaries. Creating mandatory regulation to protect whales from vessel strikes would require either the Coast Guard or NOAA Fisheries to draft a proposed rule and shepherd it through an interagency approval process.

When asked about the increase of ship strikes in 2018, Penny Ruvelas, the Long Beach branch chief for NOAA Fisheries’ protected resources division, said that the government furlough delayed many projects but that they are reviewing the data. “At this point we have nothing else planned other than continuing to support ongoing voluntary efforts, outreach and education, and research into the issue,” Ruvelas said in an email.

The Coast Guard works closely with NOAA to help prevent ship strikes and broadcasts whale sightings to mariners but is not pursuing any regulatory changes, said Dan Dewell, spokesman for the 11th Coast Guard District.

For now, the Channel Islands sanctuary is focused on voluntary and incentive-based programs. A collaborative initiative between California air pollution control districts and other marine sanctuaries, known as Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies, gives small stipends to companies that comply with recommended reduced speed limits around whale feasting areas in California.

The number of incentivized transits has increased over the years from 27 in 2014, to 125 in 2017, but the program reaches only a sliver of the 2,500 container ships that travel through the Santa Barbara Channel each year.

“While there’s been some success demonstrated with the incentive program, as well as voluntary reductions where there’s follow-up with shippers, all of these pale in comparison with a mandatory reduction in ship speed in key areas,” Calambokidis said.

Slowing down doesn’t only help protect whales — it’s beneficial for human lungs as well. Lower speeds reduce air pollution emissions such as nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog. Marine shipping accounts for approximately 70 percent of the NOx emissions in Santa Barbara County.

“Shipping emissions account for a significant amount of our pollution in Santa Barbara County and we don’t have any regulatory authority over that pollution,” said Lyz Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, which helps fund Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies.

A shared passage

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach operate their own voluntary speed reduction programs to improve air quality. Vessels that slow down when entering and departing the ports are given a rebate on their dockage fees.

Shipping companies claim that mandatory speed limits are expensive and complicate their planning processes. If ships miss their port appointment they have to wait for the next available slot, which can take days and add dock worker costs. The scheduling challenges of slowing down were raised “many times” in the drafting of the East Coast Ship Strike rule, Silber said. Eventually, companies incorporated the reduced speed zones into their voyage planning.

Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, already participates in Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies. In 2017, the majority of its vessels complied with the Port of Los Angeles’s voluntary speed reduction program.

“It would probably make less impact for us than for others,” said Lee Kindberg, director of environment and sustainability at Maersk, of how mandatory speed limits in California would affect Maersk shipping activities, “but you do have situations where you need to move faster.”

Barring incidents when ships are already running late and risk missing their port appointment, there aren’t any steep costs to slowing down in the Channel Islands region, according to a study conducted by NOAA. Researchers analyzed the potential economic impact of management strategies, such as speed reduction and rerouting, and determined that the measures wouldn’t significantly change costs for shipping companies.

As an unknown number of dead ship-struck whales sink in California waters, vessel collision incidents are rising around the world.

“In 2018, international strikes with commercial vessels are a real and growing threat to particular whale populations,” said Patrick Ramage, program director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “More progress is needed and soon in order to reduce that threat in the face of increased shipping traffic.”

Between 2007 and 2016, about 1,200 whale and vessel collisions were logged in the International Whaling Commission’s global ship strike database.

Conservationists such as Fishbach hope that someday soon policies in California can exemplify how to protect whales in heavily trafficked areas. Meanwhile, he said he believes its coastal waters are not safe.

“At the end of the season, I yell at the whales, ‘Please don’t go to California!’ ” said Fishbach, on his annual parting words to blue whales he has been studying and photographing in the Gulf of California every winter for the past 24 years.

“The fact of the matter is 50 to 60 percent go to California and the fact of the matter is that their life is on the line every day that they are there.”

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