By the Environmental Defense Center
The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) celebrates two separate actions by the federal government that will enhance protections for threatened and endangered whales along the Central Coast and beyond. First, President Biden just signed into law a suite of marine mammal protections, including the creation of a monitoring and mitigation program to reduce the risk of ship strikes and underwater noise for large whales. Second, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made changes to vessel traffic in the Santa Barbara Channel to avoid interactions between large cargo ships and whales that can lead to collisions. EDC and our partners have been advocating for these actions for many years, and we celebrate this news as a win for whales.
Whales face many risks as they migrate and feed throughout the world’s ocean, and the Santa Barbara Channel is no exception. Large cargo ships are a common sight in the Channel as they carry goods to and from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Unfortunately, these ships also pose a serious risk to endangered blue, humpback, and fin whales—ship strikes are among the main human causes of death for whales. It is estimated that ship strikes alone may negatively impact endangered whales’ recovery to sustainable population levels.
“Whales face many threats due to climate change and the increased industrialization of the ocean—we are beyond thrilled to see the federal government take action that will result in tangible protections for whales,” said Kristen Hislop, Senior Director of the Marine Program at the Environmental Defense Center.
The near real-time monitoring and mitigation program for large whales, which was included in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, aims to address this problem by utilizing technology to alert ship captains to the presence of whales. In doing so, the hope is that large ships can take immediate action to avoid a ship strike when whales are present. The bill also directs the Maritime Administration to find and implement technologies to make ships quieter to reduce ocean noise, expands monitoring of underwater noise, and supports initiatives to improve the safety of whales near ports.
In addition, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved changes to the Area to be Avoided around the Channel Islands and Santa Barbara Channel Traffic Separation Scheme (commonly referred to as “shipping lanes”), an effort EDC began advocating for in 2015. Together, these changes to vessel traffic will move cargo ships away from an area around San Miguel Island that is a known whale “hot spot.” This will not only protect whales in this area from being struck and killed by large vessels, but it will also reduce ocean noise in this area, benefitting not only whales, but also other marine life.
The IMO action is the result of a local, multi-year working group process that was initiated by EDC and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) to determine strategies to reduce the risk of ship strikes on whales. After the 2016 culmination of the working group, the CINMS and the U.S. Coast Guard moved forward with a science-based proposal that would move ships away from hot spots. This action, which was supported by the shipping industry, marine mammal experts, and conservation organizations, complements current efforts by EDC and our partners to slow ships to 10 knots or less during whale season to reduce the risk of fatal ship strikes.
“We are grateful for the dedicated staff at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary who will stop at nothing to find solutions to protect the threatened and endangered whales that rely on sanctuary waters to thrive. We also applaud the U.S. Coast Guard for moving through the daunting International Maritime Organization process to move cargo ships away from important whale feeding and migratory areas,” said Hislop. This proposal will also likely be celebrated by the tourism industry, which was also represented on the working group. Whale watching is a popular activity in the Santa Barbara Channel and important to the local economy.
While these actions are exciting wins for conservation, the work of whale protection does not end here. These new protections are not a silver bullet for whale protection, and additional measures are needed to support recovering whale populations. EDC will continue efforts to find spatial management measures, advocate for speed restrictions, and support innovative solutions that will reduce the risk of ships striking whales.
The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community based organizations to advance environmental protection. EDC’s focus areas include protection of the Santa Barbara Channel, ensuring clean water, preserving open space and wildlife, and addressing climate and energy.