Ships are hitting and killing whales off the California coast at some of the highest rates in more than a decade, according to data obtained and tabulated by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit. The spike in "ship strikes" comes despite a 5-year government initiative to slow down vessels as they make their way into San Francisco Bay.
The Investigative Unit has learned at least 77% of shipping companies that send vessels into the area are failing to adhere to the suggested 10 knot speed limit just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, ships sped past the suggested speed limit 54% of the time, according to monitoring by the U.S. Coast Guard.
At least 30 whales were hit and killed by ships in U.S. waters in 2018, according to the most recent data available from NOAA. That’s compared to just eight whale deaths in 2013.
The Largest Animal on Earth
John Calambokidis is hunting the largest animal that has ever lived on earth; not to kill it, but to save it. “Got a whale just ahead of me, John,” yells his partner, who then slaps a suction-mounted camera on the back of the rare beast: a blue whale. With tiny, waterproof cameras, Calambokidis is tracking the whale’s movements and communications. In one case, a whale tagged by Calambokidis was ascending from a dive, straight into the path of a large ship. According to a case study that Calambokidis and his colleagues published in December 2019, the whale stopped its ascent in time to stay out of the path of the commercial vessel. But often, whales are maimed and killed by the oncoming boats.
“There is a huge amount of shipping traffic,” said Calambokidis, who has spent hundreds of hours traversing the California coast. “So much of our goods come across … transported by ships,” he said.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, shipping vessels travel in and out of San Francisco Bay more than 12,000 times a year.
The federal government requires shipping companies to document each time they hit a whale. Those statistics, obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, reveal shipping vessels are hitting and killing whales at a rate not seen in more than a decade.
Ship Strikes Potentially Killed Hundreds of Endangered Whales
According to NOAA, these "ship strikes" are blamed for at least 88 whale deaths in California. Since 2006, 239 whales were killed in all U.S. waters over the same time period. Of those whales killed, nearly one in three was a member of an endangered species. Scientists, however, believe the true number of deaths is far higher than the official counts.
“The majority of reported ship strikes probably represents a tenth or less of the true number occurring,” said Calambokidis. “The majority of whales that die, in fact, sink and disappear and are never documented.”
As a result, potentially hundreds of endangered whales may have been killed off the California coast just over the past decade.
In light of the massive size of container ships – up to a quarter mile long – Calambokidis notes that crews on board are often left unaware whenever a whale is struck.
For endangered whale populations, such as blue whales, the growing rate of ship strikes threatens their very survival.
“We have been trying to understand where whales aggregate, where the prey concentrate,” said biologist Dr. Jaime Jahncke.
Investigative Unit Joins Scientists Off the Coast
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit joined Jahncke and other scientists aboard a NOAA research vessel last September as part of a mission to survey whale populations off the California coast near the Farallon Islands. Jahncke works for Point Blue Conservation Science, a nonprofit aimed at reducing the impact of a wide range of environmental threats, including ship strikes.
“We have been trying to understand where the whales aggregate, where the prey concentrate,” said Jahncke. “The idea is to understand where we have predictable hot spots where whales are more likely to return year after year.”
In an effort to track whale movements, Jahncke and a team of biologists and oceanographers have meticulously been tracking clouds of krill in San Francisco Bay. Krill, a tiny shellfish, is about the size of a fingernail. Blue whales and humpbacks can devour about 40 million of these tiny crustaceans in a single day.
Changing Lanes to Protect Whales
The scientists create a profile of the entire habitat off the Bay Area coast, above and below the water. That includes seabirds, sea lions, dolphins, the direction and speed of ocean currents, the pH of the water, and, of course, whales and their feeding locations and the paths they tend to travel. “It is a destination feeding ground for humpback whales and blue whales,” said Jan Roletto, research coordinator at Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. “From our … data we can really provide a lot of information to that effort about the whales, why they're here, what they're doing, how long they stay,” she said.
NOAA scientists aim to utilize the collected data to formulate initiatives that minimize ship traffic in areas where whales are known to congregate. In 2013, NOAA narrowed the shipping lanes vessels use to travel in and out of the Bay in an effort to keep ships away from vulnerable whale populations.
“We were able to shift the shipping lanes to cause less overlap of the whale habitat," said Danielle Lipski, research coordinator at Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Voluntary Slow Down Began in 2015
In 2015, using the same types of data, the federal government started a voluntary speed limit for large shipping vessels coming in and out of the Bay.
When vessels enter any of the area’s three shipping lanes, they’re asked to slow down to 10 knots per hour from May to November – that’s peak whale season off the Northern California coast. “Ten knots or less, the ships are less likely to hit a whale and also less likely for that strike to be lethal,” said Lipski.
The scientists are pushing the federal government to triple the size of the slowdown area to save even more whales.
“If they add those areas outside the lanes, they will be covering 99% of the area where vessel traffic overlaps with whale habitat,” said Jaime Jahncke.
However, NBC Bay Area has learned most shipping vessels aren’t slowing down.
‘Nobody…Wants to Hit a Whale’
Coast Guard monitoring found ships traveled faster 54% of the time during the slow down period in 2018 and that lack of compliance has largely stayed the same for three years. Of the 74 shipping companies that sent vessels into the bay in 2018, only 23% followed the requested speed limit.
NOAA has yet to release compliance data for the most recent voluntary slow down period in 2019.
“Nobody on the ship wants to hit a whale,” said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchants Shipping Association, adding, “Quite often they don’t see him, quite often they don’t know they’ve hit them until it’s happened.”
Berge said shipping vessels are often on a tight schedule. “The cargo owners are expecting cargo to be at a certain location at a certain time.”
Berge blames the lack of compliance on bad communication, arguing that shipping companies may still be unaware of the suggested slow down. “There are shipping companies that probably haven't been to the port here in four years,” he said. “And so how do you reach those vessels? It’s difficult.”
NOAA Failed to Reach ‘The Right People’
“Something isn’t working,” said Maria Brown, superintendent with NOAA.
When NBC Bay Area first interviewed Maria Brown about ship strikes in 2016, she warned that the voluntary slow down could become a mandatory speed limit, with hefty fines, if ships continue to speed in and out of San Francisco Bay. Four years later, however, she’s not confident NOAA has succeeded in contacting the right people responsible at shipping companies.
“We may be reaching the wrong person within the company,” Brown said. “We’re going to double down on our efforts to reach out to those companies to find out how we can reach into those companies and develop a relationship — get the message out."
As whale deaths increase and most shipping vessels appear to ignore the voluntary slow down, transforming the suggested speed limit into a mandatory one appears unlikely in the near future.
“It would be years away before regulation would ever be in place, said Brown, “because of the regulatory process in and of itself.”
Aside from the lengthy process, Brown doubts the White House would support new regulations. “The direction from the administration is to look at, ‘can we reduce the amount of regulations on the books,’” she said.
The White House did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment.
“We’re prepared and ready when the climate is right to move forward with an actual regulation to … put in a mandatory speed reduction,” said Brown.
Making the ‘Voluntary’ Speed Limit ‘Mandatory’
As he continues monitoring whales on the high seas, John Calambokidis worries some populations, such as blue whales, may soon be in trouble. According to government estimates, just three deaths a year in our region could push the already endangered whale towards extinction.
Calambokidis is advocating for a mandatory speed limit that comes with real consequences for shipping companies that fail to slow down.
“Shipping companies are in competition with each other,” he said. “When you make it voluntary, in some ways, that means a shipping company that slows down is putting itself at a disadvantage to other companies. The beauty of something like mandatory is that it creates a level playing field and makes all companies comply by the same rules rather than just expecting some that are willing to do it.”