An endangered 52-foot fin whale floated into the harbor at Naval Base Ventura County last week, dead from what was believed to be an encounter with a vessel at sea. A necropsy confirmed the suspicion: blunt-force trauma, strong enough to break bones, the cause of death.
Though death by ship is rare for whales traveling through the Santa Barbara Channel via the Channel Islands — upward of five whales a year are struck and killed by ships — the number could be exponentially higher, says marine conservation analyst Kristi Birney with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.
“We currently don’t fully understand how many whales are struck by ships,” said Birney. “Whales are negatively buoyant, so scientists think that many ship strikes go undetected, as much as up to 10 times as many whales as we observe.”
Many whales end up sinking or beaching elsewhere, remaining uncounted.
Of concern for the safety of the whales is one particular spot where an internationally recognized shipping lane crosses over into the Santa Barbara Channel. At certain times during the year, particularly in the summer, blue whales and fin whales use the same zone for feeding and mating, which results in more collisions.
Birney says that in order to prevent collisions with whales, ships should be required to slow down while passing through the channel, or the shipping lane should be moved altogether. Last year, however, the shipping lane was moved one mile toward shore and away from the marine sanctuary near the Channel Islands. Moving it again would be a challenge because of the proximity to the sanctuary and oil and gas production facilities, says Birney.
In conjunction with the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution District, NOAA’s Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary and the EDC, a project that would incentivize ship operators to slow down in the channel is being put to the test.
The project, known as the Vessel Speed Reduction Trial, asks captains to slow their ships to 12 knots or less while passing through the channel. Participating companies — of which six have come on board — will receive $2,500 per vessel that adheres to the speed limit.
“Slowing ships down reduces the likelihood that a ship strike on a whale will be fatal,” said Chris Mobley, superintendent for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in a press release. “We are extremely pleased with the positive response from the shipping industry to test nonregulatory, innovative approaches to protect human health and the marine environment while maintaining vibrant maritime commerce.”
The trial is ongoing, having begun on July 1 and ending on Oct. 14.
Justin Viezbicke, strandings network coordinator for NOAA, has only recently moved to Southern California via Hawaii and is “catching up on what’s going on out here” in regard to species of whales and other ocean mammals.
“We’re right now monitoring and trying to determine how big of an issue this problem is,” said Viezbicke. “Any time a mammal is injured or killed, it’s a big concern to us, especially an endangered species like the fin whale.”
Viezbicke says that trying to get the vessels to slow down could “positively benefit the whale populations.”
“What’s the best way to do this? To try and prevent and mitigate these things from happening while allowing the shipping industry to continue on, it’s a challenge,” said Viezbicke. “But there’s a lot of attention coming into this area now.”
In 2007, over a span of three weeks, five whales washed up along the Santa Barbara coast with internal bleeding and broken bones, suspected to have been killed via ship collision.
“We actually don’t fully understand the behavior of the whales when they have a close encounter with a ship,” said Birney. Where the shipping lane meets the channel is also a natural formation where deep sea becomes shallow water, creating an updraft that whales like to feed in.
Viezbicke, after performing the necropsy on the NBVC fin whale, still has questions about the incident.
“In this case, where was the whale actually hit? We don’t know at this point,” said Viezbicke.
Birney says that it’s disheartening when a whale is killed in the channel, but the issue is being discussed in hopes of finding a solution.
“This is what makes the channel such a unique and amazing place. It’s such a productive area with these amazing animals and they have to share a channel with commercial shipping,” said Birney. “The shipping industry is not the bad guy; the ship captains do not want to hit whales. It’s just an unfortunate situation that we have lanes that overlap with feeding areas.”