Written by Laura Bridgeman
Whales off the coast of California can now swim a bit easier.
The International Maritime Organization, which governs shipping worldwide, announced recently that it has adopted three proposals change shipping routes along the California coast in an effort to protect whales from collisions with ships.
The vessel lane changes will include the approach to San Francisco Bay, the Santa Barbara Channel, and the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex. Each of 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.
The modest changes to the shipping routes — which mainly 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 — will take effect later this year after the Coast Guard puts out public notices and completes an environmental assessment of the new routes.
The route adjustments were recommended by the US Coast Guard and the NOOA following a series of whale deaths along the California coast by confirmed or likely ship strikes over the past six years. In 2007, four blue whales were killed in the Santa Barbara channel. In 2010, two blue, one humpback and two fins were killed in the San Francisco area and elsewhere along the north-central California coast. All three species are endangered. There are believed to be about 2,000 blue whales, 2,000 fin whales and 2,500 humpbacks in the northeast Pacific.
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 graceful and highly agile in water — which leaves scientists puzzled as to why they cannot avoid ships. It is hypothesized that they become disoriented by the sound generated by engines, while others suspect that the high speeds of the ships make it difficult for the relatively slower-moving whales to avoid them.
There are many reasons why whales should be protected from potential ship strikes. Because of their dwindling numbers and low reproductive rates, each of the species listed above are protected by 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 new regulations do not completely remove all risks to whales from ships, but it does help reduce chances of strikes significantly. Hopefully, they will have a positive impact on whale populations over the years.
This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.