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Silence of the Sea

The Downside of Commercial Vessels


I am teaching an undergraduate course on endangered species at UC Santa Barbara. This last week we invited a guest speaker, Sean Hastings, the resource protection specialist at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. His lecture focused on the risks of commercial vessels in our waters, with a particular emphasis on ship strikes and the loss of endangered blue whales.

Hastings noted that commercial vessels are a primary risk in the sanctuary. Around 5,000 vessels enter the Santa Barbara Channel on their way to or from other ports of entry, primarily the Long Beach-Los Angeles Harbor complex. This harbor is the largest in the United States, and sixth-largest in the world by container volume. About $4 billion worth of products per day come out of the port, to be transported from there by trains and trucks, in a web of greenhouse gas-producing systems of global exchange. It appears as if we cannot live without the goods that enter our major ports, but we should be concerned about the consequences of our dependence on commercial vessels.

Michael McGinnis

Most of these ships use the Vessel Traffic Scheme in the S.B. Channel that was set up by the U.S. Coast Guard. The use of the shipping lanes is purely voluntary. As Hastings noted, “About 50 percent of all the consumer goods we have come from this harbor.” And, overall, about half of the vessels have traveled across the Pacific Ocean to Southern California from Asia. About a quarter are from Mexican or Canadian ports. If you shop at Costco or Wal-Mart, it is more than likely that the products you purchase were transported across the ocean by one of these vessels.

A product you buy at these large multinational stores could have a whale “stamped” onto it — it may have been shipped over from China and led to the loss of a whale off our region.

As consumers, it is important that we recognize the risks of these vessels to the marine life of our region. The most dramatic example of the impact of vessels is whale strikes. The largest animal to live on the planet is the blue whale. Several years ago, five blue whales were killed by vessels. The fact is that the blue whales are busy most of the day feeding on krill, diving hundreds of meters to feed, and they may not hear the vessels. Hastings told the story of seeing whales feeding in and around vessels as they traveled 20 knots to their destination (or about 25 miles per hour). This may not seem very fast, but when it involves such a large ship, sometimes 100 feet in length, a collision is fatal to the whale. From a seat in a Coast Guard helicopter, Hastings often finds himself yelling out to the whales, “Get out of the way!” But they don’t, and we don’t know why.

Blue whales enter our channel in the hundreds each summer to feed on krill — it is the highest concentration of blue whales in the world. A recently tagged whale traveled to the tip of Baja, then up to the waters off Alaska, and back again to the channel. She was probably communicating and singing to other blue whales along the way; since their songs travel thousands of miles. Their dance floor is the entire California Current.

If the speed of these vessels is cut in half, let’s say to 10 knots, scientists have shown that the chance of a whale surviving a strike increases. But a slower speed translates to more time to get goods into the port, and requests for vessels to slow down in the channel, even requests from federal authorities, have fallen on deaf ears. Time is money, but at what cost?

The risk to marine life is not limited to the often fatal consequence of a vessel strike. With new technologies, scientists are increasingly documenting the impacts of the noise from commercial vessels on marine life. Dr. Christopher Clark, a research scientist with the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University, is in the forefront of studying the noise of the sea, or what he refers to as the “voices of the singing planet.”

Clark is finding evidence of the range of voices from whales and other marine species, and the dramatic evidence of the impacts of the noise from vessels on the capacity of whales to communicate. He notes that in areas of high vessel usage, there is an incredible “silence of the sea”: Whales are unable to communicate in marine areas where there is high vessel traffic. This may be one reason why whales are unable to escape the path of a tanker. Hearing is generally as important to many marine creatures as sight is for humans.

Another critical impact from vessels is that they are the primary vector for the introduction of nonnative marine species. The introduction of nonnative marine species is a cause for concern. Among other things it has contributed to the loss of native marine species diversity. It is ironic that as we increasingly depend on commercial shipping, these same ships are transporting species across the ocean that may threaten the economically important fished species of our region.

These nonnative species are carried in the ballast water of large vessels or on the hulls of container ships. The San Francisco Harbor, for one example, now has more nonnative species than native species. These nonnative species may also have other economic impacts on the infrastructure of urban and industrial areas near ports and bays. They are very difficult to remove once in place.

We also need to recognize the risks of air pollution from vessels to public health. A recent state law requires the vessels to use cleaner fuels within state waters (within three nautical miles of the coast). One consequence, as Hastings noted, is that vessels are increasingly using the marine areas on the other side of the northern Channel Islands to transport their goods, to avoid the state requirement to use cleaner fuels. This may be good news for the whales of our region, but the fact is that the migration of whales, their feeding habitats and behavior, has only begun to be understood. We don’t know if this recent change in vessel traffic is good for the whales or not. We do know that a shift toward cleaner fuels is better for human health, considering the dirty bunker fuels used by shipping companies.

But perhaps the most dramatic threat posed by our reliance on these large commercial vessels is the risk of a grounding. Within the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the islands of Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, and other fragile marine areas, tankers and large container ships crash, burn, spill, and sink. The lose tons of fuel and their cargo. The catastrophe of the Exxon Valdez remains in our memory, and maritime towns like Valdez-Cordova have yet to recover. The recent sinking of the Rena off New Zealand this past October led to the loss of 20,000 sea birds (many of which feed in our waters, and nest along the small islands off northeastern New Zealand). When large vessels lose engine power, they don’t stop on a dime. Without power, they hit islands, and the fuel from their hulls spill out, smothering and drowning birds, killing mammals and other marine life.

There is no easy “green” solution to our overdependence on these ships for products. These are facts of our economic lives. So I will leave you with a question: How do we “blue” our economic dependence on commercial vessels? Perhaps one answer lies in the power you have as a consumer of goods; a good that was shipped across an ocean on a vessel burning fossil fuels along the way may not be your best choice. Recognize that your choice contributes to the silencing of the sea. We have a voice in the destiny of the great blue whale’s song and dance.



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