The results of the biggest study on earth’s biggest animal have upped the ante in a low-speed but high-stakes game of chicken playing out in the Santa Barbara Channel. After 15 years of tracking 171 blue whales up and down the West Coast, biologists believe the North Pacific population of the endangered giants spends long stretches of the year gathering and hunting for food in two key areas: the Gulf of the Farallones a few miles north of San Francisco and, to an even greater degree, the western end of the Santa Barbara Channel. Both hot spots are coincidentally smack in the middle of busy shipping lanes.
The study, led by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and published this week in the PLOS ONE science journal, spikes long-standing concerns over deadly collisions between cargo vessels and whales, which we now know cluster along an underwater shelf near San Miguel Island to feed on dense balls of krill created by nutrient-rich upwelling. The biggest overlap between the blues and ships occurs between July and October, when the animals are in town fattening up for their migration south for the winter and the tankers are rushing to Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to unload their goods in time for the school year and holiday season.
In the summer of 2007, five blue whales were hit and killed, and while there haven’t been any species-specific collisions recorded in the area since, other deadly encounters have occurred. Just last Tuesday, the body of an endangered finback whale with signs of blunt force trauma floated into port at Ventura’s naval base. Officials said it was likely struck by a ship but are awaiting the results of a necropsy.
Definitive data on ship strikes is hard to come by, as most incidents go either unnoticed or unreported. Boats sometimes pull into port with a dead whale wrapped around their bow, but the more common scenario is for the negatively buoyant mammals to quickly sink after they’re hit. The injuries are severe and gruesome: burst blood vessels in blubber, shattered jaws and ribs, and normally dense muscle pulverized into mush. Scientists estimate that of the three to five whales that wash up on California’s beaches every year, one to three of them were nailed by a boat, but that for every recorded strike, five to 10 never make it into the books.
With a heart as big as a VW Beetle and flippers as tall as you, blue whales were harpooned to near extinction before the International Whaling Commission issued strict protections in 1966. Of the 10,000 or so alive today — less than one percent of their original number — about a quarter live off the West Coast.
Marine mammal researcher Bruce Mate said the ship strike issue didn’t prompt the PLOS ONE study. When he and his colleagues started attaching satellite tags to blue whales in 1993, it was to “collect general ecological information,” as he put it, explaining that back then they didn’t even know where the animals went to breed. His team chartered the Truth during some of their trips to the Channel, and often relied on the Condor and the Condor Express for spotting. It was only along the way, before the group collected their last bit of data in 2008, that the collision problem reared its head.
Mate said a lingering question is why whales don’t notice the boats and get out of the way. He theorized that “the location of the engines in the rear of the ship creates something of an acoustic shadow in front of them, making it hard for whales to hear the ship coming.” Ships also have little to no hope of seeing a whale in their paths, Mate explained, as standard radar systems only detect other vessels. Even if a captain is lucky enough to spot a whale ahead — and even if it’s a mile away — it’s very difficult and dangerous to quickly stop or turn a vessel that’s four stories high and a few football fields long. “You can’t just jerk the rudder without wrecking,” he said.
The hits do minimal damage to ships, but they are sometimes hauled into dry dock while insurance companies conduct lengthy and expensive inspections. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asks captains to call (877) SOS-WHALE and make a report if a strike takes place.
Of suggestions that ships be outfitted with sound-emitting devices to scare whales away, Mate said that presents practical and ethical dilemmas: Such contraptions don’t yet exist, and even if they did, would we really want to deter the whales from their prime habitats? The species population hasn’t rebounded as much as expected since the anti-hunting laws were passed in 1966, but it’s not known if the stifled recovery is due to food-chain disruptions, ship strikes and noise, or some combination thereof. In the last four years, whale populations in the channel have changed notably, Mate said. Humpback numbers are up, but blues are down.
Both Mate and the study’s other authors concluded their remarks by suggesting that shipping lanes be shifted away from blue whale feeding grounds. “It’s easy to regulate people, but it’s very difficult to change the habits of animals,” Mate said. Based more on anecdotal and visual data, such a move was made last summer when the Santa Barbara Channel’s southbound lane was shifted one mile toward the mainland and away from the San Miguel krill zone. Geographically speaking, the change was relatively straightforward — it simply closed the gap between the mile-wide lanes from two miles to one mile — but the process was bureaucratically backbreaking, and how much it actually helped the whales is up for debate.
Approximately 2,500 trips are made through the channel every year, with about the same number of transits taking place south of the islands. The lanes are completely voluntary, but they are the safest and quickest routes created by the International Maritime Organization (an arm of the United Nations) and overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Skirting the islands adds about 15 nautical miles to a journey along the coast, and paths are decided by individual shipping companies based on schedules, fuel costs, and similar factors. Trips from throughout the Pacific Rim to Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors account for 40 percent of all shipping imports in the country.
Shifting the lanes any further north and away from the blue whales’ hangout would prove difficult if not impossible given the narrow amount of wiggle room between the islands, the channel’s oil rigs, and the mainland. If many scientists could have their druthers, the lanes would be moved completely south of the islands, but that could open new conflicts between ships and other whale species. There’s also the ever-looming presence of the Ventura Navy Base’s 36,000-square-mile offshore test range that can sometimes impact ship access and timing.
T.L. Garrett, who represents 90-plus American carriers as vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said it’s always been his trade group’s objective to minimize or eliminate ship strikes. He said the recent study is “a good encapsulation of where we’re at” but that more research is needed before any new changes can be seriously considered. He pointed to a ship-traffic scheme developed off the coast of Boston that relied on data from 350,000 whale sightings over a 24-year period. The ultimate goal, he said, is to develop a “dynamic management system” that can track whale locations inside and outside the channel in real time.
Garrett lauded NOAA and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s ongoing outreach to his industry and their respect of potential economic impacts to shippers when vetting new regulations. Garrett has been similarly complimented by environmentalists for embracing progressive, science-based solutions to problems affecting both sets of stakeholders, a rare collaboration in the often contentious dynamic between scientists and businesspeople.
In a fortuitous stroke of good timing, a coalition of government, nonprofit, and environmental groups made a joint announcement on Monday that a trial incentive program has kicked off to slow ships in the channel. Reducing boat speeds from 14-18 knots to 12 knots or less, explained Sean Hastings with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, will not only better protect whales but also cut back on the massive amounts of pollution tankers spew into the air. The Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District has frequently noted that 50 percent of the area’s smog-forming pollution comes from the smokestacks of big ships passing through.
Six global shipping companies have signed onto the program and agreed to slow down in exchange for $2,500 per trip, Hastings said. There’s only enough funding for 16 reimbursements, though the coalition fielded 25 requests to be included in the trial. “It’s a great problem to have,” Hastings said, explaining he’s hopeful more money will become available in the coming months and years. Since 2007, the sanctuary and Coast Guard had asked ship captains to voluntarily ease back on the throttle, but the effort was a dud, Hastings admitted. “This time, we’re putting more carrots on the table.”
The new push was created after similar incentive programs in SoCal ports saw compliance rates above 90 percent. “It doesn’t always need to be regulation and lawsuits,” said Hastings of the model. Stressing that safe navigation for all channel boaters is at the forefront of his and the sanctuary’s minds, Hastings said the organization’s advisory board will continue to look at how big of an impact last year’s lane shift has had on the blue whales and what additional changes can and should be studied to better protect the air and the animals, even after they swim away. “We might just change the world here in a very small part of the ocean,” he said, “and isn’t that the idea?”