Changes to maritime shipping lanes off the coast of California have been approved by the International Maritime Organization in an effort to better protect endangered whales from ships.
The vessel lane changes, which are expected to go into effect later in 2013, affect busy shipping lanes to San Francisco Bay, the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex and the Santa Barbara Channel, which include routes that cross three national marine sanctuaries.
Extending the three lanes in the approach to San Francisco Bay is expected to reduce interactions between ships and whales within Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries.
According to the IMO, the lane extensions should improve maritime safety in the area by keeping vessels on a dedicated route through prime fishing grounds, which will reduce interaction between fishing vessels and commercial ships.
The vessel lane changes in the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary narrow the overall width of the existing lanes and shift the southbound lane one nautical mile north. This change will move vessels away from an area used by feeding blue and humpback whales.
Blue, humpback and fin whales are protected by the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and National Marine Sanctuaries Act.
In 2010, five whales – two blue, one humpback and two fin – were killed by confirmed or likely ship strikes in the San Francisco area and elsewhere along the north-central California coast. In 2007, four blue whales were killed by confirmed or likely ship strikes in and around the Santa Barbara Channel.
The lane changes were crafted in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and US Coast Guard.
“The modifications to the traffic lanes balance the safe and efficient flow of commerce within and between our nation’s ports with NOAA’s goal of reducing whale strikes from vessels,” USCG Rear Admiral Karl Schultz, the Eleventh Coast Guard district commander, said.