In good news for whales, a number of global shipping companies have agreed to participate in a trial program that won’t just help save endangered whales from deadly ship strikes off the coast of California, but will help keep our air cleaner.
Thanks to a new pilot incentive program, which was created and implemented by the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Environmental Defense Center, six different shipping companies passing through the Santa Barbara Channel will be paid $2,500 per trip to slow down to 12 knots, down from typical speeds of 14 to 18 knots, through October.
Ironically, 2,500 is the same number of endangered blue whales believed to be left in the wild in that part of the Pacific, many of whom are traveling through the 130-mile stretch from Point Conception to Los Angeles right about now where they come to feed on krill every year.
Unfortunately, the areas where endangered blue whales come to feed also overlap with some of the busiest shipping lanes in the U.S. With an estimated 5,000 ships passing through the channel every year, ship strikes have become a big threat to blue whale recovery. The severity of the problem was highlighted in 2007, when the deaths of three blue whales were confirmed as a result of ship strikes in the area, while another two were found dead of unknown causes. With so few left, it was enough for NOAA to declare the deaths “unusual mortality events.”
According to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the potential for collisions is also a problem for other species of whales. Thousands of gray whales migrate through the area, along with endangered humpback and fin whales, while orcas will occasionally make appearances throughout the year.
Supporters of the program hope that each boat that slows down will give whales time to move and decrease the risk of a collision. Several whales are known to be killed every year, but wildlife officials aren’t sure of the exact number because many strikes go either unnoticed or unreported.
The program won’t just help keep whales safe, it’s also expected to be beneficial to us. The program is also timed to coincide with the time of year the area sees the highest amount of air pollution. According to a statement, emissions from these ships account for more than 50 percent of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides in Santa Barbara County. The program’s backers believe slowing speeds will help reduce the amount of smog-forming air pollution.
“Few people realize that ships off our coast, especially those moving at faster speeds, are a risk to endangered whales and the quality of the air we breathe,” said Kristi Birney of the Environmental Defense Center.
After conservation groups tried other legal avenues that would have required shippers to slow down, the creators hope working collaboratively through the voluntary incentive program will help protect both whales and the environment.
According to a joint statement from the organizations behind the trial, the response so far has been positive with more offers to participate than they could fund. Right now the program has enough money to pay for 16 low-speed trips through a grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation. They’re currently seeking additional funding to expand the program.
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