Proposals would shift shipping lanes to protect endangered whales

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Shipping lanes along the California coast — the oceanic superhighways for Asian goods coming to America — are poised to be rerouted in order to protect endangered whales from collisions.

The International Maritime Organization, which governs global shipping, has approved three proposals that would shift one lane through the Santa Barbara Channel and the approaches to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex and ports located in San Francisco Bay.

The route adjustments were recommended by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after four blue whales were thought to have been killed by ship strikes in the Santa Barbara Channel in 2007 and an additional five whales were suspected ship-strike victims off the Central and Northern California coast in 2010.


The shipping industry has supported the modest lane changes, which shift the southbound lane 1.2 miles away from Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands. The current route traverses a steep underwater drop-off just north of these islands — an area where blue whales congregate to feast on krill.

“We all agreed if we could move the lane a little bit away from the islands, it could reduce the risk to the blue whales,” Chris Mobley, superintendent of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, said in announcing the changes Thursday.

The whales tend to follow the krill, which move with ocean currents. But on average, the whales spend more of their time near the north slope of the islands, he said. “It doesn’t eliminate the risks, but hopefully mitigates it.”

The changes in navigational charts are not expected to go into effect until late next year, when the U.S. Coast Guard publishes official notices, takes public comment and completes an environmental assessment.

“I cannot image any opposition that would halt this process,” said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., a trade group representing ocean carriers.

Cargo vessels make about 6,000 transits through the Santa Barbara Channel a year, Garrett said, making it “the busiest shipping channel in the continental U.S.”


The industry supports moving the Santa Barbara Channel shipping lane, as well as minor tweaks to navigational channels at the Cordell Bank, used en route to the port of Oakland, and to the approach to Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. “It’s a common-sense proposal based on good science,” Garrett said.

Some groups have called for commercial ships to slow to 10 knots in areas with an abundance of whales, based on scientific evidence that slower-speed collisions are less likely to be fatal to the whales. One idea is to pay shipping companies to slow down, using credits or proceeds from California’s new carbon-trading program.

The industry, Garrett said, is OK with any voluntary incentive program that would compensate shipping companies for slower transit times. “We would be very skeptical of any mandatory speed reductions, because the science doesn’t support it yet.”

Scientists know that ship strikes happen regularly but remain uncertain whether they are hampering the recovery of blue whales, which were hunted to near extinction.

Researchers see only some of the casualties, such as the 40-foot fin whale that washed up and decomposed on Malibu’s Point Dume earlier this month. An unknown number float out to sea or sink to the ocean floor. A necropsy on the Malibu whale showed it had suffered crushed vertebrae and bleeding consistent with a ship strike.