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Saving Whales and Cleaning Our Air

On March 18, the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) Advisory Council marked the successful completion of a year-long working group effort to address two critical environmental issues in the Santa Barbara Channel, ship strikes on whales and air pollution from ships. The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) co-chaired this working group process, which brought together key stakeholders tasked with identifying possible solutions to these resource management challenges.   

Shipping in the Santa Barbara Channel

Photo by John Calambokidis.

Photo by John Calambokidis.

Each year, thousands of shipping vessels transit the biologically rich Santa Barbara Channel to and from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In September 2007, five blue whale carcasses washed up along the southern California coast as a result of fatal ship strikes. Through our work on the Sanctuary Advisory Council, EDC has successfully worked with the CINMS and other partners to identify and implement solutions to this issue. In 2011, the US Coast Guard agreed to adjust the designated shipping lanes in the Santa Barbara Channel strictly to avoid habitat areas with high whale concentrations. In 2014, in collaboration with CINMS and the Santa Barbara and Ventura County Air Pollution Control Districts, EDC conducted a trial program that paid ships to slow down to 12 knots or less in the Channel. This program resulted not only in a 50% reduction in likelihood of ship strikes but also a 50% decrease in NOx emissions (a powerful air pollutant and greenhouse gas) from participating ships. This program proved that vessel speed reduction could help mitigate the risk to endangered whales while also benefitting air quality in our region, as the emissions from these large vessels account for 54% of NOx emissions in Santa Barbara County and 30% in Ventura County. Although successful, due to funding requirements this trial did not immediately lead to a permanent solution and prompted the need to explore longer term management options.

Formation of the Marine Shipping Working Group

Accordingly, through our involvement with the Sanctuary Advisory Council, EDC successfully helped create a working group tasked with addressing marine shipping challenges in our region, including ship strikes and air pollution. After interviewing stakeholders and engaging experts, the group was initiated in January 2015. Working group members represented a diversity of interests including conservation, recreation, shipping, government, and military. As co-chair of the working group, EDC’s former Marine Conservation Analyst, Kristi Birney, helped move the process along and served as a strong voice for the conservation community. The group was given four main objectives to discuss and address:

  1. Reduce the risk of ship strikes on endangered whales
  2. Decrease air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions
  3. Improve navigational safety and promote efficient maritime shipping throughout the region
  4. Manage ship traffic to minimize Naval operation interruptions and reduce conflicts with other ocean users (e.g. fishing and whale watching concessionaires)

During the year long process, the group dug through these issues during multiple in-person meetings, participation in webinars and phone calls, and collaboration through an interactive, web-based mapping program called SeaSketch. The group was charged with proposing ideas that would achieve the stated goals. These meetings and discussions provided each member with the opportunity to learn about the many facets of the management challenges at hand, as well as contribute valuable knowledge and opinions to the group. By the end of the process, members had created two management approaches using the ideas that had been discussed and supported by some, if not all, members. These approaches were mostly focused on the ship strike issue while one idea, vessel speed reduction, aimed to address both ships strikes and air quality.

The first approach involved spatial management and speed reduction. This approach was shaped by proposals put forth by EDC and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and was in part informed by a scientific assessment completed by working group representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service and Cascadia Research. This approach included the combination of multiple spatial management measures, including the following:

  • Extension of the existing traffic separation scheme (shipping lanes) in the Santa Barbara Channel to the northwest in order to avoid a whale “hot spot;”
  • Expansion of the area to be avoided around the northern Channel Islands to protect an area with predicted high densities of blue whales;
  • Creation of a shipping route to the south of the northern Channel Islands in an area that would reduce risk of ship strike, as shown in the risk analysis conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Cascadia Research;
  • Vessel speed reduction in the existing and proposed shipping lanes to not only reduce risk of ship strike but also improve air quality; and
  • Designate the Santa Barbara Channel region as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area to alert mariners to its sensitive resource issues and encourage environmental stewardship.SB Channel

The second approach was a technology-based approach proposed by the Navy and the shipping industry that focused on real-time management and enhanced whale monitoring. This approach integrated several management ideas to create a vessel warning system to help mariners avoid interactions with whales, including the following:

  • Use infrared cameras to detect whale blows;
  • Conduct additional aerial whale surveys;
  • Collect whale sightings data from mariners;
  • Create a centralized whale data repository for analysis purposes;
  • Allow the shipping industry to transmit messages to mariners to alert them of the presence of whales via ships’ automatic identification systems;
  • Design and implement best management practices around the above strategies.

The working group was not asked to pick a favorite management idea or reach consensus on support for the approaches put forth. Rather, the group was tasked with providing information on the pros and cons of each idea, and to express their level of support for each. In the end, these discussions helped to create a robust toolbox of possible solutions as well as a deeper understanding of where conflict among ocean users may lie. EDC worked with Sanctuary staff as part of the working group’s planning team to present these approaches, as well as a detailed description of the process and outcomes, in the working group’s final report.

Overall, the group differed in opinion on many measures while reaching unanimous support for some. Measures that were not opposed involved continued and enhanced monitoring and data collection as well as researching new technologies that may allow ships to actively avoid whales. We recognize that research and monitoring have been invaluable to management and are essential to analyzing any proposed idea. However, the conservation community did not feel that this alone would accomplish the group’s goals and voiced concern that focusing purely on additional monitoring could unnecessarily delay management action. Instead, EDC encourages an approach that includes continued data collection concurrent with adaptive management. As with many environmental management challenges, solutions to the ship strike issue will likely adapt over time as new information is made available. Best available data should be used to analyze the spatial management options put forth by the working group. It is encouraging that this data has allowed the whale scientists on the working group to analyze ship strike risk for multiple shipping routes south of the Channel Islands, and EDC will continue to advocate for this type of analysis.

We anticipate that the Sanctuary Advisory Council will formally forward this report to the Superintendent to inform important management decisions. In the meantime, EDC is providing support to the Sanctuary and the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District to conduct a vessel speed reduction program this summer, utilizing lessons learned from the working group process to improve upon our 2014 efforts
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This post was co-authored by Kristen Hislop, EDC’s Marine Conservation Program Director, and Isabella Marill, a Marine Conservation Intern with EDC who was hired with support from UCSB’s Coastal Fund. The Marine Shipping Working Group and EDC received funding support from the Santa Barbara Foundation, Bower Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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