New policies, and a court ruling, protect whales from ships in SF Bay and along the Pacific coast

Pub date September 26, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

Whales, dolphins, and marine mammals in the San Francisco Bay and along the California coast could be better protected by a federal court ruling on US Navy exercises and new policies being put in place to prevent whales from being struck by ships.

US District Court Judge Nandor Vadas issued a ruling late yesterday (Wed/25) finding that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, and porpoises from Navy training exercises along the Pacific coast. It requires the agency to reconsider permits and whether they violated the Endangered Species Act.  

“This is a victory for dozens of protected species of marine mammals, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and porpoises,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney representing a coalition of conservation and Northern California Indian Tribes. 

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, the issue of an increasing number of whales strikes in the bay has been getting some proactive attention from regulators, who have developed safer new shipping polices and a whale tracker application.  

The issue drew attention in 2010 when at least five whales that had been struck by ships beached themselves and died, that is thought to be only a small indicator of a much larger problem.

“According to experts, only about 10 percent of whales killed by strikes show up on beaches,” lead researcher Dr. Jamie Jahncke of Point Blue Conservation Society, which has been working with the Coast Guard on ways to make the bay safer for whales.

The Coast Guard implemented narrower and longer shipping lanes beginning June 1 in San Francisco Bay, as well as in Los Angeles and Long Beach, in an attempt to reduce the number of whale strikes in these regions. The Coast Guard has also begun directing ships to reduce their speed when entering and exiting the bay to no more than 10 knots.

The purpose of the change in the shipping lanes is to keep ships out of primary whale habitats and other areas where they are typically found. Jahncke believes these changes will reduce the interaction between whales and ships by 70 percent.

Both Jahncke and Melissa Pitkin, also of Point Blue, see these new policies as a good thing.

Jahncke called the changes “very positive” and added they are good “for human safety and benefit wildlife as well.”

Pitkin says the Coast Guard “has been a great participant” and part of a “great collaborative effort” to make waters like San Francisco Bay safer for the whales.

While the new shipping lanes keep ships out of areas in which whales are most commonly found, the animals do not confine themselves to only those parts of the bay. Researchers go out on the bay to collect information on where the whales go and congregate, but they are only out there three to five weeks out of the year.

This is why, Jahncke says, they “need additional help… [and] eyes out on the water.”

Researchers have been seeking ways to further reduce the chances of ships striking whales in San Francisco Bay. They have recently decided to enlist the public’s help with the implementation of the new Whale Spotter app, which will allow anyone out on the water to report where they see whales.

The hope is that whale watchers, recreational fishers, and others will use the app to report any whale sightings. Point Blue will then be able to use the information provided via the app to “make maps and represent the data in a way NOAA can use it,” says Jahncke.

Pitkin further addresses the purpose of this app.

“The goal is to get information available in real-time to mariners about where whale concentrations are so they know” how to alter their course or speed.

The app is not the only way members of the public can join in the efforts to protect local whales. Point Blue is seeking financial contributions to aid their effort to raise funds for the app and ongoing marine research. People can visit to make a donation.

Meanwhile, the federal courts are now asking the US Navy and the agencies that permits its navel exercises to also take heed of their impacts to aquatic ecosystems.

“NMFS must now employ the best science and require the Navy to take reasonable and effective actions to avoid and minimize harm from its training activities,” Mashuda said.

The Navy uses a vast area of the West Coast, stretching from Northern California to the Canadian border, for training. Activities include anti-submarine warfare exercises involving tracking aircraft and sonar; surface-to-air gunnery and missile exercises; air-to-surface bombing exercises; and extensive testing for several new weapons systems.

In 2010 and 2012, NMFS authorized the Navy to harm or “take” marine mammals and other sealife through 2015.  The permits allow the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding, or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar.

New science from 2010 and 2011 shows that whales and other marine mammals are far more sensitive to sonar and other noise than previously thought.  In permitting the Navy’s activities, NMFS ignored this new information.  The Court found that the agency violated its legal duty to use this “best available data” when evaluating impacts to endangered whales and other marine life.