Court orders US to investigate role of California shipping lanes in endangered whale killer

OAKLAND, Calif.– A federal court on Wednesday ruled in favor of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth in their lawsuit challenging the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Coast Guard to protect endangered whales from being attacked by ships calling at California ports .

The groups sued authorities in 2021 for failing to meet Endangered Species Act consultation requirements when designating shipping lanes at ports in the Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Francisco Bay areas.

Ship attacks are a leading cause of death for blue, fin and humpback whales off the California coast. A ship attack in August killed California’s most photographed whale, a beloved humpback named Fran.

“California whales just got some much-needed legal protection, and I’m glad the court understood that the Coast Guard’s shipping route decisions have life and death ramifications for these magnificent, endangered animals,” said Brian Segee, attorney of the center . “After more than a decade of delay, it’s time for federal officials to quickly develop a better plan to route and slow ships as whales and sea turtles face mortal risks every day.”

Although the lanes direct shipping traffic through several “hot spots” where whales congregate, including the Santa Barbara Channel and the northern approach to San Francisco Bay, the service concluded in a biological survey that the designations were not ” ingestion” of whales or sea turtles.

Wednesday’s court ruling dismissed the service’s conclusions, noting that its decision “defies logic” and that there is “undisputed” that whales are hit and killed by ship strikes inside the lanes.

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“The federal government has ignored the disastrous effects of shipping for far too long,” said Marcie Keever, Oceans and Ships program director at Friends of the Earth. “The science is clear: better management of ship speeds and routes will have a positive impact on marine ecosystems. It is time for the court to direct the service to take action.”

Following the Court’s rejection of the biological report, the Coast Guard and Service must conduct a new consultation that considers the impact of shipping route designations on ship strikes. Agencies must also consider measures that have been shown to reduce these impacts.

Researchers have consistently shown that mandatory vessel speed limits and route changes are the two most important measures that can be taken to reduce the overlap between vessel traffic and densely forested areas.

Between 2007 and 2020, there were 49 documented cases of ships killing large whales off the California coast. Scientists say the real number could be 20 times higher as most dead whales sink. This year alone, five whales have been killed by ships in the San Francisco Bay Area, including beloved Fran.

Environmental groups have long called for shipping speed limits and other shipping rules to better protect vulnerable marine life, but the service has repeatedly rebuffed those efforts.

Most recently, in April 2021, the Center applied to the service for a rule introducing a mandatory 10-knot speed limit for large ships on shipping lanes off the California coast. The petition also asked the agency to identify areas of seasonal importance for endangered whales. In April 2022, the service denied the petition, concluding that “it is not currently necessary and appropriate to regulate vessel speed…to protect…blue, fin and humpback whales”.

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