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11.03.10

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Whoa, Captain!

How to keep ships from killing whales in Bay waters

By Juliane Poirier


My fourth-grade son is currently reading a kind of James-Bond-for-kids thriller. In the story, loads of dangerous things happen aboard a freighter ship—foot chases, explosions, daring escapes, unlikely speeches and impossibly accurate karate kicks causing gun slingers to drop loaded weapons within arm's reach of the hero. All this takes place while market goods are being carried from one port to another—and oh, a bomb explodes under the sea, causing wave action that conveniently kills a bad guy who's speeding away in a bad-ass, Bond-like motor boat.

Of course, the author doesn't bother dealing with what the explosives do to the marine animals. It's all just fantasy entertainment. But I'm thinking that another form of fantasy entertainment is our belief that ocean freighters go from port to port in innocuous fashion with no life taken.

Here's a scene from our fantasy: a whale is in the path of a freighter. The friendly and quick-thinking captain smiles, tips his hat and steps on the brakes. But wait! Ships don't have brakes. Well, then he swerves to miss the whale. Uh, freight ships don't swerve. So what happens?

In real life, there's a collision. The ship's hull strikes the whale and either injures it or kills it. The ship keeps zipping right along so that market forces can prevail, and the goods get to the docks.

San Francisco Bay is marked by invisible shipping lanes, in which ships travel so fast they sometimes can't steer clear of human life and property. Ask the fishermen who've had their boats and nets damaged by fast-moving commercial ships. Whales that happen to swim in the path of these ships are frequently struck and often killed by the impact. Since 2007, there have been eight endangered blue whales killed by ships on California shores, including two pregnant females.

Ironically, these mammals were swimming in waters designated as a sanctuary for whales and other marine life. It's a place where the whales are supposed to be safe. This point was brought up by advocates at a forum in Oakland about shipping lanes, held by the U.S. Coast Guard on Oct. 20. Although the Coast Guard was attentive to the needs of the fishing industry, according to Jackie Dragon, director of the Pacific Environment organization, members of wildlife-advocacy organizations had a voice as well.

"It's excellent that the Coast Guard created an opportunity for the public to comment," says Dragon, who claims that the best action to protect whales in our busy shipping lanes is to simply slow traffic. "We believe that slowing ships down in sanctuaries makes perfect sense," she adds. "Scientists tell us that whales are much more likely to survive a ship strike or to get out of the way altogether if ships are traveling slower." The recommended speed limit for ships is 10 knots, a limit imposed on ships along the Atlantic coast in 2008 as an effort to protect the North Atlantic right whale, of which there are only about 300 left.

According to a recent report by Pacific Environment, between July and September of this year "three other endangered whales— humpback, minke and fin—were killed by ship strikes and found stranded in Bay Area waters prompting the Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary to issue a warning notice to mariners. It is likely that many more ship strikes occur and go unreported."

Anyone else out there think a 10-knot speed limit in the shipping lanes is a good idea? There's still time to make it happen. The public comment period is open until Jan. 20, and everyone is welcome to request that speed regulations be set in the San Francisco and Oakland shipping lanes.

Slowing the ships down in the shipping lanes will help protect whales and cut down on pollution and resource wastes caused by speeding vessels. As for me, I'd prefer to keep all those crazy, fast and violent freighter scenes safe within the chapters of my son's fantasy action novels.

To make your voice heard about shipping speed limits, contact Coast Guard Lt. Lucas Mancini at lucas.w.mancini@uscg.mil or at 510.437.3801.


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