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California Ships Slow Down to Protect Whales

Aug 07, 2014 01:18 PM EDT

As part of a program being launched in California this summer, cargo ships are slowing down in hopes of protecting endangered whales from fatal collisions and reducing air pollution.

The speed reduction program, sponsored by federal wildlife officials, environmentalists and air quality regulators, will pay shipping companies to slow down as they travel through the Santa Barbara Channel to both reduce emissions and avoid colliding with blue whales that migrate through the area.

"Few people realize that ships off our coast, especially those moving at faster speeds, are a risk to endangered whales and the quality of the air we breathe," Kristi Birney of the Environmental Defense Center said in a statement.

Ship strikes have been a major concern recently, and have killed dozens of endangered blue, humpback and fin whales over the last 10 to 15 years, threatening their recovery.

According to a National Marine Fisheries Service report, conducted from 1975-2002, some 292 large whales have reportedly been involved in ship strikes worldwide.

And this problem, at least for California, is not likely to just go away. A related study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE found that about one fourth of the world's estimated 10,000 blue whales spend time in waters off the West Coast, primarily to feed. So as long as food is still around (and it's currently peak feeding season), these massive mammals are likely to encounter passing boat traffic.

But whales aren't the only concern here. Officials also worry about the contribution ships pose to global warming and the buildup of greenhouse gases. According to the recent statement, ships account for more than 50 percent of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides in Santa Barbara County.

Participators in the trial program will be paid $2,500 for each trip completed at 12 knots or slower through a 130-mile stretch from Point Conception to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. Normal ship speeds are between 14 and 18 knots. Officials hope that this will give any nearby whales enough time to swim out of the way.

The Los Angeles Times reports that six multinational shipping companies, COSCO, Hapag Lloyd, K Line, Maersk Line, Matson and United Arab Shipping, are taking part in the incentive program.

However, one concern is that the incoming payments are not enough to cover the additional costs by slowing down, noted T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn. Also, air quality officials bring up the point that ships can always increase speeds later on in their route to make up time lost.

"That could easily wipe out the air quality benefits," Garrett told the L.A. Times.

The program has enough funding to pay for 16 shipping transits through the Santa Barbara Channel until the end of October. Backers hope to acquire additional funding to expand it past that date.

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