Federal officials are asking ships to slow down and watch out for whales feeding on swarms of krill in the Santa Barbara Channel this summer -- as they have for the past four seasons.
A heaping supply of the tiny crustaceans draw whales to the area each summer and fall. But that can lead to deadly collisions as whales feed in busy shipping lanes and ships head into and out of nearby ports.
Slowing down might help ships avoid whales, or vice versa, officials said. It also reduces the likelihood that a whale involved in a collision will be killed, said Sean Hastings, resource protection coordinator with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
"Our job is to protect endangered whales, and ship strikes are a major threat to the recovery of the blue, humpback and fin whales," he said.
Each year, officials find three to five whales that have been struck by ships along the California coast, but authorities think the real number could be 10 times higher, Hastings said. Once struck, whales sink or drift away, leaving many collisions undetected.
"What we do see every year is the tip of the iceberg, which is why we are so concerned," Hastings said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends ships 300 tons and larger not exceed 10 knots as they travel between Sandy Point, Santa Rosa Island and Point Hueneme.
The federal agency has regulatory responsibility for the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which add protections for whales and other marine mammals.
Officials will monitor speeds to gauge compliance with the voluntary limits, Hastings said. In the past, they have had little success in getting ships to slow down.
Many environmental groups have wanted the slow speeds to be mandatory, he said. Officials decided instead to work with the shipping industry, try the voluntary recommendations and work on moving shipping lanes away from whale routes.
Recently, an international group that governs shipping worldwide agreed to move the lanes about a mile away, which will help but not solve the problem, Hastings said. Federal officials also are working on other measures, such as setting up an incentive program for the ships.
The Coast Guard plans to broadcast messages on marine band radio, advising mariners to watch out for blue, humpback and fin whales around the Channel Islands, officials said.
Any collisions with whales or sightings of injured or dead whales should be reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at 877-SOS-WHALE or the Coast Guard on VHF-FM Channel 16.
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