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In the spring, thousands of blue, fin, and humpback whales thread through California’s Santa Barbara Channel as they migrate to the cool waters of the northern Pacific. Navigating that narrow route, however, places the whales in the crosshairs of multi-tonne cargo ships heading to port.
Collisions with ships are one of the principal causes of death for baleen whales off the coast, and the problem is only getting worse. In 2018 and 2019, ships killed at least 20 whales in the state.* Dozens more likely met that same fate and now lie at the bottom of the ocean.
John Calambokidis, longtime whale behavior researcher and founder of Cascadia Research Collective in Washington State, says he sometimes sees 200 blue whales in a single outing, all very near the shipping lanes. “It’s a setup for high mortality,” he says.
Now, one nonprofit is demanding action. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is planning to sue the US National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Coast Guard for violating the Endangered Species Act, just as it did in 2008, following a year in which ships killed three blue whales in two weeks off Santa Barbara.
“Ship strikes are a primary threat to the recovery of great whales along the California coast,” says Brian Segee, CBD’s senior attorney. For fin whales and endangered blue whales, collisions are the most imminent threat, he adds.
One measure that CBD argues should be considered is mandatory speed restrictions. If cargo ships reduced their speed to 10 knots (18.5 kilometers per hour), that might give whales a chance to dodge them or at least survive the impact of a collision.
The idea has precedent. In the early 2000s, citizens and lawmakers on the US East Coast worried about a growing number of ship strikes involving endangered North Atlantic right whales. In 2008, following political pressure, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) imposed a mandatory speed limit of 10 knots in several right whale feeding grounds. In the next five years, collisions between ships and right whales plummeted in those protected areas.
CBD hopes that similar speed restrictions will work in the Santa Barbara Channel. But whether the tactic will translate successfully in California is up for debate. For one thing, slowing down ships means they’re present longer in the channel, which means more time to potentially encounter a whale. Given the abundance of whales in the area, which are drawn to krill in the channel’s northern outlet, there are plenty of opportunities, says Calambokidis.
“In our research, we’ve witnessed several near misses,” he says. “It is really apparent to us how dramatically in danger these whales are.”
Yet for whales, 10 knots might not be the magic speed, according to a recent study. Though the number is tied to the amount of force required to break whale bones, the cetaceans often succumb to other post-strike injuries like hemorrhaging or irreparable damage to the baleen needed for filter-feeding. Even small ships traveling below 10 knots can produce fatalities.
And unsurprisingly, speed restrictions aren’t popular with shipping companies either. According to John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a cargo ship can lose several hours in transit after reducing its speed for the length of the 200-kilometer channel. Some companies have enough slack in their schedules to withstand such a delay, but others claim they can’t afford the loss, says Berge.
Despite uncertainties, shipping companies and other stakeholders have flirted with speed restrictions in the past. In 2014, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary kicked off a voluntary speed reduction initiative in the channel. NOAA scientists and the US Coast Guard helped administer the program by raising awareness among shipping companies and incentivizing compliance by doling out awards and positive press to the companies that voluntarily reduced their ships’ speeds. Today, half of all cargo ships comply. But for whales, it’s not nearly enough.
“We’ve done a lot and tried a lot over the years, and we’re still not at a level where we can avoid these animals going extinct,” says Sean Hastings, resource protection coordinator at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which is operated by NOAA.
Calambokidis echoes this frustration: “I don’t think we’ve come nearly as far as we need to. We should have moved past voluntary restrictions long ago.”
After years of discussion, more biologists are starting to believe that the ultimate solution to this regulatory impasse may not lie in speed reductions but in outright separation of the two titans. “The best thing you can do is separate the whales and ships,” says Hastings. “And we have a lot of work to build on.”
That option was considered by a 2016 working group, which included the National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, US Coast Guard, and shipping giant Maersk. The shipping lanes would need to divert around the Channel Islands to avoid whale feeding zones, while also giving San Nicolas Island, a site used by the US Navy to test missiles, a wide berth. A recent study assessed the strategies proposed by this group, and found some routes were better than others at reducing ship strikes.
The working group also discussed exploring new technologies, including one launched this year by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative, the University of Washington, and other institutions. Whale Safe, an underwater microphone submerged in the Santa Barbara Channel, listens for whale calls and identifies the species they come from using AI. That data can help make whale migration maps more accurate, which would add heft to a rerouting bid.
As the picture becomes clearer for both whales and cargo ships, California may be inching closer to preventing future clashes between the behemoths. In the meantime, CBD is staying resolute in its lawsuit.
“We need to remain vigilant,” says Segee.
*Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect where the 20 whales were killed–that total represents the state of California, not just the Santa Barbara Channel as previously written.