Early last month, the first blue whale of the season was spotted in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel: an approximately 70-foot leviathan spied by passengers on an Island Packers boat near Santa Cruz Island. Though a joyous and lucky occasion for all involved and a sign of the annual migratory return of the species to local waters, it also marks the first documented report of the federally endangered whales swimming near Santa Barbara since five of them died in or near Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary waters last summer. With at least three of last summer’s fatalities linked to ship strikes, the Sanctuary Advisory Council and its staff have been working for the past six months to prevent such bloodshed from reoccurring this summer. To that end, the council voted unanimously last week to enact phase one of its still-developing plan for preventing future and potentially deadly ship versus whale smash-ups in the channel: a letter to shipping operators urging them to slow down.
The cause of last season’s numerous whale deaths has yet to be determined, with the list of potential culprits including domoic acid, blue whale population density, and krill distribution. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) called the die-off an “unusual mortality event,” thus demanding an immediate response from the overseeing agencies. According to NMFS, the estimated total 1,744-strong population of Eastern Pacific blue whales can sustain, at most, 1.4 deaths a year. That number more than doubled in fewer than 90 days last year. Rehashing a preventative strategy they implemented late last season, the Sanctuary Advisory Council is asking vessels whose shipping lanes run right through sanctuary water to use a maximum speed of 10 knots in the area. (This speed would equal approximately 10 minutes of latitude per hour.) Though the speed limit is little more than a suggestion and an actual law would require a lengthy and red-tapeobstructed approval process with the International Maritime Organization, the Advisory Council hopes that captains’ voluntary compliance will reduce the chances of future collisions. “The whole point is, once the whales are there, we want the vessels using the channel to slow down,” explained Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, which heads up the council’s subcommittee on whale and shipping relations. However, in a post-9/11 reality that requires ships to inform their anticipated ports of call some 96 hours in advance of their exact arrival time, international shipping vessels coming through the Santa Barbara Channel on their way to places like Long Beach are often behind schedule and may be less than inclined to ease back on the throttle, as even one minute of tardiness can prevent them from being allowed to make their scheduled stop.
With that in mind, the council is still investigating just how much last year’s speed reduction recommendations were actually heeded. Krop said Sanctuary Advisory Council staff has heard anecdotal evidence from operators that they appreciated the warning and behaved accordingly, while other preliminary data suggests that compliance was “not that impressive.” While the 10-knot limit is only one part of a yet-to-be finalized comprehensive plan (including increased monitoring and information-sharing efforts that the council hopes will better ensure the safety of all whales swimming in the channel), Krop said that the welfare of the channel’s nonhuman travelers should be considered foremost. “The bottom line is, this is a sensitive area, and it may be that you just have to go slow when you are in the Santa Barbara Channel,” she said.