Proposals aim to protect whales from ship collisions

June 6, 2012 7:16:34 PM PDT
The shipping industry has tentatively agreed to some groundbreaking proposals to protect whales outside the Golden Gate.

The number of huge cargo ships hitting whales has been rising, which isn't good for the whales or the ships. But a cooperative effort is helping to turn things around.

The Bay Area coastline is perfect whale habitat. "We actually have one of the highest concentrations of blue whales and humpback whales in the world, right here in our backyard," said Maria Brown of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

The whales come to the Bay Area for food. The water is full of spectacular life. The area is considered so critical there are three marine sanctuaries with special environmental protection.

But San Francisco is also one of the busiest ports in the country, and the shipping lanes run right through the sanctuaries.

It's a deadly combination.

"In recent years we have had more incidents of whales getting struck by ships and have had dead whales unfortunately wash up on the beach," Brown said.

Now after more than a year of discussion, a working group has agreed on recommendations to keep boats and whales apart. The group includes the shipping industry, scientists and government and environmental organizations.

Greenpeace's Jackie Dragon is co-chair of the working group. "We've come up with recommendations that are safest for whales at the least cost to the industry," Dragon said.

Up until now, ship owners have been reluctant to slow down or change routes in order to avoid whales. An industry spokesperson said that's because there's been a lack of solid information about where the whales really are.

John Berge of the Pacific Marine Shipping Association said, "A lot of the efforts that have been done in the past were based on where whales might be historically at a certain point in time."

The new recommendations call for observers on the ships themselves. There have to be trained spotters on board or crew members have to train themselves to spot whales and report where those locations are, Berge said.

That information would be combined with other reports from airplanes, whale watching tours and local researchers, and then warnings would go out.

"When a significant number of whales are present in the shipping lanes, it would be considered whale sensitive and at that point, ships would have the option of routing to a different lane or of slowing down to 10 knots to proceed at a safer speed," Dragon said.

That could make a big difference because whales don't seem to understand the danger created by ships.

One member of the working group is John Calambokidis, a top whale researcher at Cascadia Research. "Even when we have documented blue whales very, very close to being struck by a ship, we have not seen them take an avoidance response," he said.

Part of the problem may be underwater noise from ships, which can be dramatic. "There are some indications that that is affecting whales and their ability to communicate," said Calambokidis.

The working group is also proposing that underwater noise in the sanctuaries be recorded and studied for possible future action. They've also suggested some changes in the location of the shipping lanes themselves. The Coast Guard has already sent some of those ideas to an international panel for review.

The recommendations will be considered Thursday at a meeting of sanctuary advisors. Final action is up to the sanctuary superintendents.The proposal is for the new plan to be voluntary, but if it doesn't work, mandatory rules may come later.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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