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Ships Versus Whales Topic of Panel Discussion

Blue Whales Most Vulnerable to Fatal Strikes in the Santa Barbara Channel


Although it appears no blue whales were hit and killed by ships in the Santa Barbara Channel this year, interest into how to protect these large endangered cetaceans continues after four deaths in 2007.

Wednesday afternoon evidenced collaboration and research from a variety or organizations including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control Disctrict (APCD), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary (CIMS), and Santa Barbara’s own Environmental Defense Center (EDC). The EDC organized and hosted the panel for a mixed group of about 50 grad students and interested area residents at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

Since 2007 a plethora of advisories and petitions have floated between organizations, but the enduring consensus between the groups is that more research is needed into the how, when, and why whales are struck by passing ships. Collaboration, they agree, is key. Sean Hastings from CIMS brought up a few new points. He said the petition for a voluntary speed limit of 10 knots through the channel had no real impact, mainly because it was not complied with. And based on new data, he went on, it appears blue whales are much closer to the surface at night. Penny Ruvelas with NMFS said that keeping ships and whales apart is the logical solution to the problem, but it is a complex situation, as all the panel experts reiterated.

Ruvelas explained how, although the blue whale population is the greatest cause for concern, all whales are at risk of being struck by ships of all sizes. She likened the humpback and the fin whales to the Sharks and the Jets from West Side Story in that they occupy completely different territories, so rerouting shipping routes based on population density is not practical. Blue whales, she explained, move through all areas of the ocean, making them especially vulnerable.

Brian Shafritz from APCD raised an interesting point. He said the declining rate of ship strikes might be attributed to an air quality law passed in 2007 requiring all big boats that enter the channel to burn a cleaner type of fuel. Rather than spending more money on the pricey alternative fuel, ships often chose to reroute along the south side of the islands. Now, only 20 percent of the 7,000 ships that annually pass through the area cruise between the coastline and the islands. There’s no definitive data yet on what this trend means for whales, but fin whales in the south are now in the line of fire. That will soon change, though, as next year the cleaner fuel law will extend to 24 miles past the islands.

A Port Access Route Study (PARS) conducted by the Coast Guard for the waters around Santa Barbara and Los Angeles — meant to examine marine life safety while maintaining efficiency for the shipping industry — was another topic of discussion. Brian Segee, staff attorney with the EDC, finished the panel agreeing that the issue is a “vexing” one and there are “no clear answers.” He said the results of the a PARS recently conducted in San Francisco will certainly influence the pending one. Segee stated it’s important to take into account the sensitivity of each species population when determining shipping routes. The humpback whale and the fin whale have both bounced back from extinction and are now quite prevalent, he said, but blue whale numbers are the slowest to recover and the closest to dropping to zero. A a final nod the “vexing” situation, he concluded: “The way nature is — you are never able to put permit lines on a map.”

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