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Slower vessel speed helps prevent whale-ship collisions in Santa Barbara Channel

Data of whale activity in the Santa Barbara Channel is mapped by Whale Safe, a project of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UCSB
Data of whale activity in the Santa Barbara Channel is mapped by Whale Safe, a project of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UCSB

Whales in the Santa Barbara Channel are in constant danger of colliding with large shipping vessels. The Channel is an important feeding ground and migratory route for whales, but the 70 mile stretch of ocean is also used by international cargo ships traveling to and from ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“One of the hard things about whale-ship strikes is really quantifying them because when they [whales] are hit by these large cargo ships or container ships, a majority of them go unnoticed or unreported,” Callie Steffen said.  

Steffen is a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UC Santa Barbara. She said it’s not uncommon for a tanker or container ship to strike a whale and not know it.

Research shows that collisions are the leading cause of death for large whales, estimated at more than 80 per year on the West Coast. For this reason, Vessel Speed Reduction (VSR) zones were established for ships 300 gross-tons or larger in busy shipping lanes with a history of whale collisions.

“In California, there are two VSR zones, up by the port of Oakland and then the Santa Barbara Channel leading to and from the ports of LA and Long Beach,” Steffen said.

She said there are fewer accidents when the ships slow down to 10 knots, and the collisions, if they do happen, are less lethal. Steffen said reducing speed is voluntary, and a little more than half of the ship operators participated last season.

“It is not a mandatory speed limit at this point. The hope is that the government can work with industry to get that cooperation up before enforcing any mandatory speed zones,” she said.

With images and sounds collected from buoys, aerial views, and reported sightings, the Whale Safe project publishes real-time data and makes it available to the marine shipping industry with the hope that ship operators will slow down if they know whales are in the Channel.

You can see the map of whale activity in the Santa Barbara Channel by going to the Whale Safe website.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.