A campaign to slow ships steaming toward San Francisco and other California ports so they are less likely to injure or kill whales is beginning to pay off, with 22 local and international shipping companies agreeing to reduce speeds voluntarily, federal officials said Thursday.
The effort is all the more important this year, given the carnage caused by large vessels, which often have to travel through national marine sanctuaries to get to their destination ports.
Four of the 10 gray whales found dead near San Francisco this year were killed by ships, and nearly 140 whales have died after being struck since 1988, said representatives of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The 22 shipping firms, which represent 45% of the 8,000 inbound vessel trips through the Golden Gate every year, were honored by the two organizations Thursday for cutting their speed in 2018 to 10 knots (11.5 mph) or less in areas populated by whales. Those include the Farallones, Channel Islands, Monterey Bay and Cordell Bank marine sanctuaries.
“We’ve been working closely with the sanctuaries to do a lot of outreach and communications with the shipping companies,” said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which deals with maritime trade issues. “Just as anyone driving down the highway doesn’t want to hit an animal, nobody in a ship wants to hit a whale. It’s a tragic accident and we want to do what we can to reduce the risk.”
The shippers recognized by NOAA include local carriers like Chevron Shipping Co. and Marathon Petroleum Corp., which owns the former Tesoro refinery in Martinez. Major national and international lines, including Celebrity Cruises, Canada Steamship Lines, Shell Trading Co., Cosco Shipping Lines and the Mediterranean Shipping Co., were also praised for helping save the whales.
The effort is an attempt to reduce what marine biologists say is a huge number of whale strikes along the coast, including almost half of the 10 gray whales found dead in the Bay Area since March.
It began in 2013 when NOAA extended shipping lanes several miles beyond the continental shelf, where blue and humpback whales feed. A year later, the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries began voluntary vessel speed reductions from May to November, peak time for blue and humpback whales visits to the area.
There are no speed limits at sea, so oceangoing vessels like container and cruise ships can zip along as fast as they want, usually 20 knots, about 23 mph. Ships heading into and out of the Golden Gate have slowed by an average of three or four knots over the past decade, according to NOAA officials. The speed limit inside the bay is 15 knots.
Unfortunately, Berge said, there are a lot of ships that come through once a year or less, and the captains don’t know they are supposed to slow down.
Maria Brown, superintendent of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, said five years ago only 17% of the incoming ships slowed down. Now 45% are throttling down to 10 knots.
Lethal ship strikes are a worldwide concern, especially among blue, humpback and fin whales, which tend to suffer more than other species.
NOAA Fisheries biologists documented 138 whales killed by ship strikes in California marine sanctuaries from 1988 to 2016. It’s believed that number represents, at most, 10% of the actual number of whale deaths caused by collisions.
Large vessel traffic, and the tonnage of individual ships, has increased over the last few decades, and it is widely recognized that shipping lanes adjacent to San Francisco Bay ports are especially susceptible. That’s because record numbers of humpback and blue whales have been feeding in recent years off the coast and even in San Francisco Bay.
California’s marine sanctuaries have the largest concentrations of blue whales in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
“Endangered blue whales come to the sanctuary every year. We’re the bread basket, the restaurant for blue whales,” Brown said. “And the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that the No. 1 human-caused death of blue whales is ship strikes.”
Although more whales in general are getting hit by ships, blue whales — the largest creature to ever live — appear to be the most in danger, marine biologists say. There are only 1,800 to 2,000 blue whales in the northeastern Pacific, a small fraction of their historic numbers, but there are more of them along the California coast than anywhere else.
Their well-being has been a concern since 2007, when five dead blue whales washed ashore in Southern California — four of them had major wounds consistent with ship strikes. A little less than half of about two dozen blue whale deaths along the California coast since 1988 were caused by ships, according to recent studies.
The injuries have extended this year to gray whales, which normally do not enter the bay or linger in the area during their winter migration, which usually ends in May.
This year, those whales have been hanging out for long periods and feeding on bay mud, a highly abnormal practice for the species, said Pádraig Duignan, the chief research pathologist at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands.
Of the 10 gray whale carcasses found in the Bay Area this year, six had entered San Francisco Bay, including a mother and calf seen recently trying to feed near the San Mateo Bridge. Four died of malnutrition, four after being hit by ships, and two were too decomposed to tell what happened.
A necropsy performed on a 41-foot female that washed up last week on Ocean Beach found injuries consistent with a ship strike. Tired, malnourished whales are more susceptible to ship strikes, attacks by orcas or entanglement in fishing gear, Duignan said. In a typical year, only one or two gray whales wash ashore in the Bay Area, he said.
The good news is that gray and humpback whales are at or near their historic populations, and the number of fin whales has also been increasing. About 20,000 humpbacks and 27,000 gray whales now inhabit the North Pacific.
Ship strikes are also believed to be a primary reason the critically endangered northern right whale hasn’t recovered after being almost killed off by centuries of whaling. Only 20 or 30 right whales still exist in the North Pacific.