Environmentalists urge ship speed limits to protect whales

McClatchy NewspapersJune 6, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Environmental groups want stricter ship speed limits off portions of the California coast to protect marine mammals from getting slammed.

Citing dangers to vulnerable whales, four environmental organizations petitioned the Obama administration Monday to limit the speed of large commercial ships passing through designated West Coast marine sanctuaries. The proposed 10-knot limit could dramatically slow ships passing through more than 8,000 square miles of protected ocean.

"Our marine sanctuaries should be a safe harbor for marine life, but instead whales in California are at constant risk of being run over by big ships," said Miyoko Sakashita, the oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The proposed speed limits would apply to the Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank marine sanctuaries. The sanctuaries are both lush animal habitat and busy sea lanes, potentially forcing federal regulators into tough tradeoffs.

Ship traffic along the California coast is increasing, and the West Coast ports are among the nation's busiest. Commercial ships may travel at speeds of about 20 knots, which is the same as 20 nautical miles per hour — or 23 mph.

"As the petition was just filed today, we are (still) reviewing it," said World Shipping Council Vice President Anne Kappel, whose organization represents nearly all of the commercial shipping industry.

The new petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Defense Center, Friends of the Earth and Pacific Environment marks the second time that environmentalists have sought stricter speed limits along the West Coast. Federal regulators rejected a similar proposal in 2007.

Federal agencies can take a year or more to consider proposals such as this, which can become the opening wedge for more muscular action later.

"After (one year) we will consider our litigation options," Sakashita said in an interview. "We will certainly contemplate a lawsuit for unreasonable delay or denial."

The Center for Biological Diversity is a frequent litigant, filing many lawsuits to compel protection for endangered species.

Since 2001, the petition notes, nearly 50 large whales off the California coast have been documented as struck by ships. Last year, at least six large whales were reported victims of collisions off the coast.

In 2007, the discovery of five blue whale carcasses between Santa Cruz Island and San Diego, near the Channel Islands sanctuary, prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to declare an "unusual mortality event." The available evidence implicated ship strikes.

Navy ships are required to report when they strike marine mammals, but commercial cargo ships are not. Environmental groups think that the number of whale deaths may be greater than the reported amount.

"While we cannot likely change the behavior of whales and other species so as to avoid ship strikes, we can and must regulate vessel practices to minimize this risk," the petition says.

Faster ships, in particular, appear more likely to collide with whales and are more likely to cause serious damage when they do. One study cited in the petition noted that of 28 serious or lethal whale injuries evaluated, none occurred when the ship involved was traveling more slowly than 10 knots.

Along portions of the East Coast, federal authorities have imposed a 10-knot speed limit for ships 65 feet or longer for the past several years in order to protect the North Atlantic right whale.

In choosing the speed limits to protect the right whale, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opted against several other proposals that would have cost the shipping industry tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the agency's environmental impact statement.

The environmental groups propose that the new West Coast speed limits likewise apply to ships that are 65 feet or longer. The proposed limits would apply to Navy ships, though not to ships involved in law enforcement or search and rescue efforts.

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