Due to the rise in number of accidents and collisions involving ships and whales, a group of four environmental groups have requested the US government to impose speed limits for ships traveling over California’s National Marine Sanctuaries, where whales are prominently found breeding and migrating.
The four groups, the Environmental Defense Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Pacific Environment, believe setting a speed limit at marine sanctuaries would decrease the number of collisions between ships and whales. In the 61 page document the group presented, they claim that ships traveling at a lower speed would give whales more time to react to incoming ships. Whales also have a better chance of living after a collision if ships are traveling at a lower speed. Ships traveling at a lower speed also reduces emissions and underwater noise pollution.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the Department of Commerce, is currently reviewing the petition.
Since 2001, experts say at least 50 large whales have been hit by ships, and since some incidents are not reported, that number could be much higher. Wheneve Navy ships are involved with a collision, they are required to file a report while commercial ships are not. Last year alone, at least six whales were involved in collisions, including a mother blue whale and her fetus found dead ashore in Pescadero and a humpback whale found dead off of San Pedro.
On the other hand, the shipping industry believes that more scientific evidence is needed to justify that a speed limit for ships will save whales. T.L Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, says, “It’s just premature to assume that slowing vessel speed is the solution to the ship-whale interaction issue.” If anything, ships can just change their routes and avoid traveling through marine sanctuaries.
Lower speed limits would also be unprofitable and cause delays in cargo arrivals. Although, traveling at a lower speed would decrease fuel consumption and costs, ship operators argue that the added time at sea increases operation costs. At the ports of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, the most heavily used routes used by commercial ships cut through protected waters. Whether they abide by this speed limit or navigate around protected waters, either case is inconvenient and wastes time and money for ship operators. They feel it’s a lose-lose situation for them.
John Calambokidis, a biologist at Cascadia Research in Olympia, Washington, supports the environmental groups’ petition but also believes more evidence is needed. He believes it is more effective to change shipping routes than to impose speed limits to prevent collisions between ships and whales. Although a lower speed limit may reduce the number of injuries or deaths from collisions, he argues that the number of collisions may still remain high. Calambokdis believes collisions should be prevented altogether.
In the past, there have been many voluntary advisories issued by governments to address the concern of environmental groups for these whales. In 2007, the NOAA designated the area between Point Conception and Point Dume a “whale advisory zone” after four blue whales were killed by ships. Also, a seasonal advisory from May to December is implemented off Santa Barbara because of the large number of whales that migrate there at that time of the year.
Because they are not strictly enforced, these advisories are ignored by many commercial ships and are still found traveling at high speeds through protected waters.
In Boston, the US Coast Guard has tried reworking ship routes and claim it has has helped reduce the number of collisions between ships and whales. They propose that, if implemented off the US West Coast, they can enforce the speed limit through tracking systems, which allow the Coast Guard to look up any ship’s name, speed, and location at any time.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/aok/289739667/