Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Groups Seeks 10-Knot Speed Limit for Vessels Off California Ports

Four environmental and conservation groups filed a legal petition last week asking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to set up a 10-knot speed limit for large commercial vessels traveling in and out of the ports of San Francisco Bay and Southern California.

The four groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Defense Center, Friends of the Earth, and Pacific Environment – allege that commercial vessels are afecting marine wildlife in federally-protected marine sanctuaries with vessel strikes on marine life, noise pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.
The main traffic channels for the Bay Area and Southern California ports pass through the state's four National Marine Sanctuaries, which include the Channel Islands off of Southern California and the Cordell Bank, the Gulf of the Farallones and the Monterey Bay sanctuaries in the Bay Area.

The three Bay Area marine sanctuaries cover the entire entrance to San Francisco Bay, requiring any vessel moving into or out of ports such as Oakland, Richmond, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Stockton to pass through three designated traffic zones that overlap the marine sanctuaries. Near the Southern California ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the major shipping traffic lanes located to the northwest of the ports run between the Channel Islands and the Santa Barbara/Ventura counties coast, overlapping the Channel Island marine sanctuary in one stretch.

It is not uncommon for large commercial vessels to travel at speeds much greater than 10-knots in these overlapping areas. According to a January, 2011 study on the Channel Island whale strikes by commercial vessels, NOAA reported that "On average, some 6,500 large (over 300 gross tons) vessels transit through the Channel every year, the majority of them at speeds greater than 14 knots."

Most vessels approaching Southern California voluntarily participate in the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports' Vessel Speed Reduction Program, which requires the vessels to slow to no more than 12 knots within roughly 40 miles of the ports. The Channel Islands overlap area is just outside the 40-mile speed reduction zone for the Southern California ports.

The entrance areas to most of the major ports along the Atlantic seaboard are already covered by a 10-knot maximum speed rule for commercial vessels over 65 feet during NOAA-designated right whale migratory and calving periods throughout the year. Areas around Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary also have similar seasonal restrictions to protect humpback whales.

In their petition, the four groups ask United States Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to take action through NOAA to apply vessel speed restrictions similar to those on the East Coast to the California coastal areas outside the Bay Area and Southern California ports.

Specifically, the petition calls for: "A mandatory 10-knot speed limit for vessels greater than 65 feet within the Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, Monterey Bay, and Channel Islands National Marine sanctuaries to protect whales from collisions with vessels and noise pollution, and to provide other benefits associated with reduced speeds that will further protect sanctuary resources."

“Our marine sanctuaries should be a safe harbor for marine life, but instead whales in California are at constant risk of being run over by big ships,” the Center for Biological Diversity's oceans director Miyoko Sakashita said.

The January, 2011 NOAA study found that the most affected whales in the Channel Islands area are fin whales, but strikes on blue, gray and humpback whales have been noted.

“Reducing ship speed is a simple, reasonable way to protect whales and other aquatic life, as well as public health, from risks posed by large vessels that travel through California’s waters," Friends of the Earth's director of the Oceans and Vessels Project Marcie Keever said.

The groups point to at least six whales which have been killed by collisions with vessels in 2010 and more than 50 large whales which have died off the California coast in the past decade.

The groups also allege that noise pollution and engine emissions from increased maritime traffic is impacting marine life in the sanctuaries.

“A 10-knot speed limit seems to be the best practical solution offering the most benefits – such as reducing climate change emissions, air pollution and ever-increasing ocean noise pollution,” Pacific Environment's interim executive director Leah Zimmerman said.

The January, 2011 NOAA study concluded that, "In general, the case studies presented indicate that dynamic management of vessel behavior can reduce the risk of ship strikes. They may also minimize impact on commercial activities by limiting vessel speed or course only during necessary times or in critical areas."

However, the study also pointed out that the examination of existing speed control programs found that, "the creation of these management actions were time and resource intensive."

The NOAA study developed seven recommendations, including: continue and expand research and monitoring efforts of whale strikes; consider the appropriateness of changes to vessel behavior in the Santa Barbara Channel region; explore changes to the Santa Barbara Channel traffic separation scheme; continue and expand education and outreach; explore incentive and mandate-based options for vessel speed reduction; apply an adaptive management approach for the implementation of the recommendations; and, continue to engage and involve relevant agencies, stakeholders and the maritime industry groups in the consideration and implementation of these recommendations.