The Science of Sustainability

When A Sanctuary Is No Longer A Sanctuary

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All is not well in our national marine sanctuaries. This summer and fall there have been at least six ship strikes on whales in the Gulf of the Farallones, the Monterey Bay and near the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuaries. Image courtesy of Ed Estes.

We don’t let our kids play on the freeway. We don’t let our friends drive drunk.

Why do we allow our cousins to cross an ocean superhighway and get killed by ships?

This season has been a highly productive year for krill in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and whales are gathering by the hundreds. Each year, several thousand of the great whales gather here in our West Coast Sanctuaries and just off the San Francisco coastline to feed and fatten. Thousands of people are fortunate enough to see one of the most rare marine mammals, the blue whale. To see a blue whale, or any whale for that matter, is an experience beyond measure. As a naturalist, I am fortunate to experience the largest animal to ever have lived on the planet up close.


This year, we have seen blue whales every single trip out to the Farallones and scores of humpbacks feeding and breaching or just resting at the surface. Our last trip to the Gulf of the Farallones was no exception. Humpbacks gathered in cooperative feeding, concentrating the tiny shrimp into masses of red, before lunging through the mass for a big gulp of protein. One blue whale swam gently towards our idling vessel as the passengers on the Vessel Outer Limits marveled at the giant. I have seen perhaps a hundred blue whales, but I have never experienced one this close. The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Sanctuary rules require us to stay 100 yards from a whale, but they don’t tell the whales to stay 100 yards from us. Unthreatened, whales frequently swim very close to vessels.

Image courtesy of Ed Estes.

On our trip, passengers from Iowa, Israel and San Francisco were thrilled at the abundance and diversity of life in our Sanctuary.

But all is not well in the Sanctuary. This summer and fall there have been at least six ship strikes on whales in the Gulf of the Farallones, the Monterey Bay and near the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuaries. A fin whale was recently buried at Ocean Beach, the spine crumpled from a ship strike. In the Port of Oakland, the crew of a ship discovered a dead minke whale on the bulb at the bow of the ship. A blue whale was struck and found dead on the beach with a fetus last week. Another blue whale washed ashore to the north and two humpback whales were reported dead with propeller scars. While it is uncertain if ships caused the deaths or the whales were struck after death, in several cases there is no question.

These accidents are occurring for a number of reasons: the convergence of whales feeding and ships entering and exiting one of North America’s busiest seaports. A new California regulation on air quality has lead to increased traffic in the east-west channel so that ships can switch to more polluting fuel outside of state waters, thereby bringing more traffic across the Sanctuary and closer to the islands. On Sunday, we viewed several ships from cargo vessels to supertankers, steaming along at twenty five knots mere miles from the Farallones and within a mile of feeding whales. It's not only the whales that are at risk. An oil spill or illegal discharge could conceivably wipe out pelagic bird populations gathering by the thousands to feed and breed in the Sanctuary. Common murres, now on the rebound after a serious decline, are particularly at risk.

We can draw a line around it- but it doesn’t mean it is protected.

We rely on our shipping for goods within the USA and between nations. Shipping is a huge industry in the San Francisco and Oakland Ports. We can’t do without the shipping, so what is the solution to avoid these continued ship strikes?

There is one solution proposed by non-profits including a local non-profit, Pacific Environment, to slow the passage of ships through the Sanctuary. The slower speeds will allow whales to move out of harm's way – out of the path of ships. The slower speeds will have an added benefit of reducing the cacophony of propeller and other white noise created by ships, noise which interferes with communication among whales and other marine mammals. Also, the lower speeds will increase fuel efficiency and reduce pollution in the Sanctuary.

It seems like a no-brainer, but shipping companies are complaining of higher costs and slower delivery schedules. Yet reducing speeds from twenty five knots to ten knots in the Sanctuary would add approximately two hours to a voyage that takes days or weeks to traverse.

What is the value of one whale?

On the East Coast, the northern right whales also share the ocean with major shipping lanes, and that whale population has suffered greatly from ship strikes. In fact, the critically endangered northern right whales have been reduced so drastically that NOAA has implemented a whale monitoring and ship advisory system to notify mariners of the presence of whales. Ship captains are requested to divert course or slow down to ten knots in the presence of whales – yet the program is voluntary and incidents are still putting these whales at risk.

It is estimated that there may be one percent of the original blue whale populations remaining prior to industrial whaling. With less than half that in the northern hemisphere, we are arguably furthering this population towards extinction. Humpbacks, fin whales and blue whales are all endangered. Every single whale counts. The first solution would be to regulate a speed limit in the Sanctuary. The next would be to control traffic in the main shipping lanes to accommodate whales and even resort to a mandatory notification and routing plan for ships. To support the simple solution of reducing the speed of ships near whales and across the Gulf of the Farallones into the San Francisco Bay, we can contact our Sanctuary Superintendent Maria Brown (maria.brown@noaa.gov) and Western Regional Superintendent Bill Douros (william.douros@noaa.gov), and tell them that we are concerned about shipping interactions with whales. Help support our Sanctuaries leaders effort to protect our west coast whales, so that the Sanctuary truly is a sanctuary for whales.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Environment, Partners

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David McGuire

About the Author ()

An avid writer, surfer and ocean voyager, David McGuire is the founder of the conservation non profit Sea Stewards and is an advocate for a healthy ocean. As Captain, Dive Master and Cinematographer, David has explored the world ocean on numerous sailing voyages collecting media with an emphasis on ocean awareness.Educated in Marine Biology, he holds a masters degree in Environmental Health and has worked in education and public health at the University of California at Berkeley for over a decade. David is the writer, producer and underwater cinematographer of the award winning documentary Sharks: Stewards of the Reef, and was writer and cinematographer on a film on California Marine Protected Areas, and Palmyra Atoll. David has written, filmed and produced a new documentary on the Sharks of San Francisco Bay and has worked as cameraman on feature films such as 180 South and A Beautiful Wave. His underwater filmwork on San Francisco elasmobranches and ecosystems continues and he frequently donates his work for conservation causes. As Field and Research Associate with the California Academy of Sciences, David is Project Manager of a shark research program on the San Francisco Bay and has initiated a new sharks awareness campaign: Shark Sanctuary San Francisco. Through expedition sailing and video production, Sea Stewards is exploring and explaining our ocean world, influencing policies and practices from sustainable fishing to marine protection. Through Sea Steward Studios, our Media Production work is used to influence sound policies and sustainable ocean practices. Current work includes a series on Sea Turtle Conservation in Mexico, a film with partners Team Fish Finders using local fishermen to promote catch and release and a documentary on local sustainable seafood and a Cordell Banks Expedition.