Whale Crossing

UPDATED Monday April 15 3:54 (See bottom.)

April 10, 2013—In addition to being one of the most beautiful and biologically significant estuaries in the world, San Francisco Bay is also one of the world's busiest shipping harbors.

To get in and out of the bay, dozens of huge vessels pass through the Gulf of the Farallones and along the Cordell Bank every day. And in doing so they kill between five and 50 whales a year, according to marine scientists—including endangered blue, humpback and fin whales.

Thanks to a policy adopted in December and slated to go online within months, that could change soon.

Kaitlyn Kalua of the Ocean Conservancy, quoting this month's issue of the journal Conservation Biology, reports that last year's agreement between NOAA, the US Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization could drastically reduce the number of whale strikes off California.

"Massachusetts experienced an 81 percent reduction of whale strike risk in the Boston Harbor after making similar lane changes and improving whale monitoring practices five years ago," Kalua writes. "By integrating data and increasing coordination among federal agencies, port authorities and the maritime industry, the harbor created simple solutions to mitigate an unnecessary problem. Port officials hope to see the same effect in California."

The maritime industry has agreed to narrowing the width and rerouting shipping lanes to direct ships away from the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, which along with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary describe one of the world's biggest continuous expanses of protected ocean.

The impetus to change the shipping lanes came in 2010, when five whales were confirmed to have been killed by ship strikes in the San Francisco area—including a 47-foot fin whale that washed up on a beach on the Point Reyes National Seashore and a female blue whale carrying a calf that was found dead in the Farallones.

"Blue whales' numbers are so small," said Maria Brown, NOAA's superintendent for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. "To lose a female and a new whale coming into the population really sent home the message that we needed to look at the whale strike issue."

Marine scientist John Calambokidis has studied ship strikes off the West Coast for decades. He says the actual number might be 10 times as high as the confirmed numbers suggest, because the animals often sink when they are killed by shipping vessels.

The new westbound shipping lane out of San Francisco Bay would extend three miles past the continental shelf, where it now ends. The new northbound lane would limit vessels to a narrower lane, rather than allowing them to disperse where whales congregate.

The agreement also extends to Southern California's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

UPDATE: Gruesome scene in Puget Sound after a fin whale was killed in another ship strike.

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Article and video: Fred Keeley, author of the Marine Life Protection Act, delivers an inspiring message about ocean politics.

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