Right off the coast of San Francisco, the environment and the world of commerce are clashing — a conflict nearly always out of sight and out of mind.
The Gulf of the Farallones and the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries lie in the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the Bay Area coast. Both sanctuaries teem with aquatic life. Most notably, the sanctuaries are feeding grounds for endangered blue, fin and humpback whales, and a migration route for gray whales.
Yet traversing the same marine sanctuaries are large ships — including tankers, cargo ships and cruise ships — sailing to and from ports in San Francisco Bay. And where the paths of the whales and ships cross, there are collisions. Between 1988 and 2011, there have been 20 whales killed by ships and 10 injured and possibly killed in these two sanctuaries, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And these statistics probably don’t capture the full picture, since whales tend to sink when they die or wash ashore too decomposed to determine the cause of death. A NOAA report says the actual number of whale deaths from ship strikes could be as much as 10 times higher.
Ships traveling through these sanctuaries also create noise. The worst offender, according to NOAA, is the loud hiss that comes from what is called propeller cavitation, which is when bubbles are created by propellers and then collapse. While all of the ways that noise from humans impacts cetaceans is not known, studies have shown that it hinders the detection of prey and reduces their range of communication and ability to detect relevant sounds.
The ample economic benefits of having a deepwater port in our region need to be balanced against the need to protect whales and other animals in these marine sanctuaries. Between 2008 and 2010, large ships weighing more than 300 gross tons, which create the most noise and do the greatest harm to whales with propeller strikes, made about 7,500 trips into and out of San Francisco Bay. The majority, 57 percent, are container ships, car carriers and cruise ships. The container ships are mostly headed to the Port of Oakland, which is the fourth busiest container port in the United States. The cruise ships are docking in San Francisco and depositing tourists at the waterfront to spend money in our economy.
In an effort to balance these two interests, NOAA has compiled a report containing suggestions for the marine reserves and the agencies that manage ship traffic, including the U.S. Coast Guard. The recommendations include modifying the routes large ships use to approach and exit San Francisco Bay, altering shipping lanes to avoid congregating whales and implementing a real-time whale monitoring system. The report also suggests steps such as giving ships a financial incentive to reduce the noise from their vessels in the marine sanctuaries.
Advisory councils for the marine sanctuaries recently approved the NOAA recommendations, and the proposals are now with the superintendents of the Gulf of the Farallones and the Cordell Bank for review and consideration. These recommendations walk the fine line between protecting the majestic animals living off our coastline and respecting the business that large ships bring to our region.
We hope all the interested parties will work toward implementing solutions to this problem rather than letting it sink into oblivion.