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Environmental groups want ships to slow down to avoid killing and injuring whales

June 6, 2011 |  7:21 pm

Whale 
A coalition of environmental groups is asking the federal government to require ships traveling though California’s marine sanctuaries to slow down to avoid fatal collisions with whales, a problem that they say has climbed to “unsustainable levels.”

Four groups filed petition Monday asking the Commerce Department to establish a 10-knot speed limit for large commercial vessels traveling through California’s four National Marine Sanctuaries in the Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank.

Some freighters travel through those waters at more than twice that speed.

Nearly 50 whales have been hit by ships traveling off the California coastline in the last decade, according to experts, who believe the number is probably much higher because many of the accidents go unreported.

Shipping groups says a speed limit would greatly slow down cargo reaching port and more than double the time it takes the fastest vessels to travel through the sanctuaries.

The petition from the environmental groups is meant to prod the federal government to take steps to fight the growing problem. Some of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes leading in and out of the ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Francisco Bay run through the migratory paths and feeding areas of endangered whales.

In the 61-page document, the Environmental Defense Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Pacific Environment say a speed limit would help protect endangered blue, humpback and fin whales from being run over by big ships.

"The overlap of these shipping lanes with California’s national marine sanctuaries puts sanctuary wildlife at great risk,” the petition reads. “While we cannot likely change the behavior of whales and other species so as to avoid ship strikes, we can and must regulate vessel practices to minimize this risk.”

Slower speeds would give whales more time to detect approaching ships and would lower the chances that injuries would become fatal if they are hit, the groups argue. A speed limit also would cut back on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and underwater noise that can harm whales.

In a statement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a branch of the Commerce Department that oversees National Marine Sanctuaries and endangered marine species, said it is also concerned with ship strikes to whales and would review the petition.

Shipping groups said a speed limit may not make it any safer for whales and has suggesting realigning shipping routes as an alternative.

“It's just premature to assume that slowing vessel speed is the solution to the ship-whale interaction issue,” said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., a trade group representing ocean carriers that dock at West Coast ports.

Where possible, vessels would probably navigate around the sanctuaries to avoid the restrictions, he added.

Four blue whales were struck and killed by vessels in 2007 near the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to designate shipping lanes from Point Conception to Point Dume a “Whale Advisory Zone.”

Since then, the agency has conducted aerial surveys of the area and broadcast seasonal advisories to ship captains traveling through the channel suggesting they limit their speed to 10 knots – or roughly 11.5 mph -- to avoid hitting whales when they’re in the Santa Barbara Channel in high concentrations, usually from May to December.

Because the advisories are voluntary, environmental groups say, they have gone largely unheeded. Shipping groups said most vessels have not opted to lower their speeds.

--Tony Barboza

Photo: Pete Thomas For The Times

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