A federal wildlife sanctuary program is asking the record number of cargo ships and other vessels along the Southern California coast to slow down to try to protect a local population of endangered whales.
A supply chain crisis has turned the Channel Island region into a watery parking lot for waiting container ships, posing real threats to endangered blue, humpback, and fin whales in the area, according to Sean Hastings, a resource protection coordinator at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
“Slowing ships down as they enter and exit the ports is a great way to reduce fatal ship strikes on endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales,” Hastings told The Epoch Times. “We’re trying to both maintain commerce and protect whales.”
The growing flotilla of container ships waiting to offload goods at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports has the sanctuary concerned, he said.
“The extent of this problem has us very concerned,” Hastings said.
The Channel Islands are made up of eight islands off the Southern California coast, between Santa Barbara and San Diego, that include Santa Catalina, San Clemente to the south, and Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa to the north.
The sanctuary has not been able to reach every whale that has been struck or has died recently to determine if any were struck by ships, he said.
“We have a lot of whales right now, so we wanted to extend the program another couple of weeks and notify the industry we needed to do so,” Hastings said.
The waters surrounding the islands make up the sanctuary, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs the National Marine Sanctuary program.
The sanctuary extended its Voluntary Vessel Speed Reduction Zone in the area this week.
The extension runs through Nov. 30, asking ships 300 gross registered tons or more to reduce speeds to 10 knots from Dana Point to Point Arguello.
Ships typically cruise through at 15 knots, Hastings said.
The voluntary program, in place since 2007, only sees about 60 percent cooperation of the shipping industry, Hastings said. They are urging and expecting the industry to increase cooperation with the program.
“Slower ships are also cleaner ships. And it really helps with pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” Hastings said.
The program only extends through the month and would not cover the migrating gray whales that populate the area starting in December. Gray whales are more abundant and are not endangered, but their young migrate close to the ports.
“We are concerned about ship strikes on gray whales. They do occur, and we know gray whales do get hit,” Hastings said.
Whale-watching captain and longtime expert Corey Hall, of the Point Whale Watching at the Dana Wharf, said the ships could become more of a threat to the gray whales when returning from Alaska to the waters off Dana Point.
The gray whales are moving through and using echolocation, as opposed to the whales in the region now, which are following the food, Hall said.
“When they get down here when we start seeing them, that definitely could be an issue,” Hall said.
Gray whales leave the Arctic each year and travel thousands of miles to breed in the Baja lagoons, then return. The 12,000-mile-round-trip is one of the longest migrations of any mammal, according to marine conservation group Oceanic Society.
“Thanks to a moratorium on whaling and other multinational protections, the eastern Pacific population of gray whales is thriving with around 26,000 individuals, and a Red List status of Least Concern,” according to the society.
The gray whales have already left Alaska on their journey south, Hall said.
“We typically start seeing them beginning of December,” Hall said.
Right now, whale watchers are mostly reporting sightings of humpback, blue, and fin whales, along with bottlenose and common dolphins.
The large cargo ships were also instructed to make every effort to comply with instructions received from the Navy when traveling south of the Channel Islands.