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Safe Passage Project Seeks Sustainable Solutions for Maritime Conflicts

Each year thousands of container ships transit the Santa Barbara Channel, a critical feeding ground for whales. Image courtesy of John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research.

Nearly 200 blue whales visit the Santa Barbara Channel each summer on their annual pilgrimage up the West Coast – the largest concentration of blue whales anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, thousands of container ships transit the channel’s internationally designated shipping lanes each year, elevating the risk of ship strikes on these endangered creatures.

“The Santa Barbara Channel is home to some of the highest diversity of whales anywhere in the world, including blue whales, grays, humpbacks, fins, and orcas,” said Kristi Birney, marine conservation analyst for the Environmental Defense Center. “In 2007, four whales were struck and killed by cargo ships in a three-week period. It really raised the profile of ship strikes in the community.”

The Environmental Defense Center, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District are leading a collaborative effort to address marine shipping conflicts in the Santa Barbara Channel and implement an incentive-based vessel speed reduction pilot program. Recognizing the many interests at stake, the Santa Barbara Foundation recently awarded an Innovation Grant to initiate this Safe Passage Project.

“As a critical first step in this community project, we have pulled together a new working group under the marine sanctuary’s federal advisory council to discuss strategies for creating more sustainable shipping, decreasing air pollution, reducing the risk of ship strikes, reducing interference with naval testing operations, and enhancing navigational safety,” said Kristi. “In a parallel but separate effort, we will pilot a program this summer to financially incentivize a small number of ships to reduce speeds while transiting the channel.”

Protecting the Whales

It is believed that the historic population of blue whales was at one time over a quarter of a million animals worldwide. Commercial whale hunting, which was banned in the late 1960s, slashed the blue whale population to approximately 10,000 animals, with an estimated 2,000 residing in the Eastern Pacific.

“One of the largest threats to whales right now is ship strikes,” said Sean Hastings, resource protection coordinator for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. “The slower ships go, the better chance whales have of surviving strikes, and presumably they also have more time to get out of the way.”

Every year, Eastern Pacific whales migrate from as far south as Central America to as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. Because the warm and cold currents that converge along the Central Coast create a highly productive ocean environment, the Santa Barbara Channel serves as a critical feeding ground for whales. Diving 200 meters beneath the surface to feed on tiny crustaceans called krill, these 80- to 100-foot whales are easily overpowered by the 800-foot ships that share their waters.

“What makes blue whales excellent divers is that they are negatively buoyant, meaning a whale on the surface naturally sinks rather than floats,” said Sean. “Based on natural history, biology, and the physiology of the animal, it is very likely that more whales are being struck by ships and sinking out of sight than those that float and end up on shorelines. Whale researchers think the number of animals being hit could be upward of five to 10 times more than we are aware of.”

The International Maritime Organization recently ruled in favor of shifting the shipping lanes that run through the Santa Barbara Channel away from the feeding grounds of whales, but geographic constraints within the channel mean that whales are still at risk of being struck.

Improving Air Quality

In addition to endangering whales, marine shipping is responsible for emissions of several air and climate pollutants, including greenhouse gases and black carbon. Shipping accounts for more than 50 percent of Santa Barbara County’s emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a precursor to the formation of ozone. The county is currently not in compliance with the state standard for ozone, which at ground level can cause significant respiratory health impacts.

“We have been concerned for a long time about the air pollution from large ships going through the channel, and in particular about the NOx emissions they produce,” said Mary Byrd, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. “A University of California, Riverside study indicates that by reducing vessel speed to 12 knots, ships become more efficient, burn less fuel, and create less pollution.”

If the county cannot reduce pollution from marine shipping, local businesses may continue to take on the burden of rigorous air regulations.

“Over the years, businesses have been producing less pollution with cleaner technologies and stricter regulations. Car pollution has also decreased because of the state’s cleaner fuels rules and smog checks,” said Mary. “Shipping continues to produce the greatest amount of NOx emissions. If we can reduce NOx emissions to meet the state standard for ozone by slowing ships down, it will be better for our economic health as well as our public health.”

A Pilot Program

Vessel speed reduction to minimize air quality impacts and protect whales is not a new concept. For the past four years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tried asking ships to voluntarily reduce their speeds in the Santa Barbara Channel during whale season from June to November. With no incentives or regulations, less than 1 percent of ships complied.

The pilot program will explore the feasibility of adding a financial incentive for companies to reduce their ship speeds, modeled after a program implemented by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with over 90 percent participation.

“The financial incentive is a token amount,” said Sean. “We believe the real incentive is to provide them with the public attention and recognition they deserve for demonstrating a sustainable corporate attitude.”

While the shipping industry maintains concerns about the vessel speed reduction program, representatives have pledged to take part in the working group.

“We do not aspire to regulate the shipping industry. We want to facilitate vibrant maritime commerce, just in a more sustainable way,” said Sean, noting that the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s governing entity, NOAA, is housed under the United States Department of Commerce.

“So far the shipping industry is supportive of the project because they understand that we can come up with better solutions by working together, rather than fighting through regulations and lawsuits.”

Ensuring Navigational Safety

Recent changes in fuel regulations have prompted some ships to reroute to the backside of the islands, where the ship strike problem is even more difficult to quantify and where there currently are no shipping lanes.

“We do not want ships going anywhere and everywhere. Ships in shipping lanes are paramount to keeping the ocean safe,” said Sean. “A worst case scenario for our entire county, for whales and every other living thing, is two ships colliding and the resulting oil spill that would happen.”

Unorganized ship traffic and congestion also poses concerns for the United States Navy, which conducts missile testing and training south of the Channel Islands. Naval representatives will join the working group to discuss possibilities for ship relocation and improved scheduling.

“Many of us in Santa Barbara may not realize the Navy is operating the world’s largest test range behind the Channel Islands,” said Sean. “Having thousands of ships pass through their testing range each year disrupts operations and training, and their readiness for responding to threats around the world.”

To help facilitate these deeper discussions, the working group plans to use a web-based ocean planning tool called SeaSketch. Developed by the University of California, Santa Barbara’s McClintock Lab, SeaSketch allows stakeholders to explore marine management solutions through real-time spatial planning and graphic visualizations.

“The ocean is busy and it is getting busier,” said Kristi. “SeaSketch is a powerful communication and data analysis tool that will allow us to input data, share ideas, and have honest conversations about conflicts within the channel.”

A Game Changer

The Safe Passage Project, along with an increasing number of environmental and conservation efforts, is gaining momentum through its unique public-private partnership.

“It is exciting that the Santa Barbara Foundation recognized the visionary aspect of this project,” said Owen Bailey, executive director of the Environmental Defense Center. “This is an attempt to bring everybody to the table and to really find that win-win. Any solution that has everybody contributing to it is going to be a better, longer lasting solution.”

The vision for this project is to transition from a pilot to a long-term program. State cap-and trade funding – revenue generated from charging companies for exceeding a set level of greenhouse gas emissions – is one option to support a full-scale vessel speed reduction program in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“We hope a successful pilot program here can scale up to other areas in California and beyond,” said Sean. “Rerouting and slowing ships has the potential to be a game changer in terms of climate issues, endangered species protection, and human health beyond Santa Barbara County.

Posted: April 2014
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