Sanctuary council hears update on whale strikes

National Marine Sanctuaries on the West Coast have reported an increasing number of whale casualties caused by ship strikes, but the problem doesn’t appear to be as severe in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Washington.

That was the assessment Friday of William Douros, the West Coast regional director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, who listed the whale strike problem as his agency’s No. 1 priority in a meeting with the Olympic sanctuary’s advisory council in Hoquiam.

A June report said the West Coast also contains some of the highest densities of commercial maritime traffic in the world, with 50 percent of the nation’s commerce flowing through major deep draft ports-of-call. The sanctuary report also noted that the true number of whales being struck and killed or injured by ships is likely far higher than what has been documented.

“It’s been a really big deal down in California,” Douros told the council. “The whales are getting hit by ships, and that’s been going on for five or six years.”

The agency report on whale strikes said sanctuaries “are a feeding ground for blue and humpback whales and part of a major migration route for gray whales.” The number of humpback whales from the California, Oregon and Washington coast is estimated at 2,043, while there are an estimated 2,497 Eastern Pacific blue whales. Both species are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

While the incidents of whales being struck by large ships off the Washington coast appear to be fewer, Douros said it was only a matter of luck and whale migration patterns that has kept the numbers in the Northwest down.

The greatest number of strikes have been in the Santa Barbara area (Gulf of the Farallone Marine Sanctuary) and off the coast of San Francisco (Cordell Bank Marine Sanctuary). In most cases, they have been blue whales or humpbacks, Douros said.

“This last year, there was a fin whale as well,” he said. “But the blues get a lot of attention. One washed up on a popular state beach and aborted a fetus, which got everybody that much more exercised about it.”

An environmental group, he said, petitioned to impose a 10-knot ship speed limit through all the national marine sanctuaries in California, but the restriction has not been approved by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

“We have had a lot of success working with the Coast Guard, both off San Francisco and in Los Angeles-Long Beach,” Douros said.

Studies also have been done on access routes to ports, and he credited the shipping industry in general with working to find a way to lessen the number of whale strikes.

“They recognize there is a safety issue there, too, if you have boats and whales co-located. Really big ships may not notice a blue whale when they hit it, but smaller ships can,” Douros said. “So they are adjusting the shipping lanes.”

Other ideas include how to come up with better monitoring tools or methods to predict where the whales might be congregating.

“From a West Coast standpoint, that’s our top priority,” he said. “We have a lot of people working on it at all the sites.”

There are four marine sanctuaries on the West Coast, including the Olympic sanctuary, which includes 2,408 square nautical miles of marine waters off the Olympic Peninsula. The sanctuary extends 25 to 50 miles seaward, covering much of the continental shelf and several major submarine canyons. Monterey Bay is the other sanctuary off the California coast.

In other developments from the Hoquiam meeting, the advisory council discussed ways to create more public awareness, including an upcoming effort to put signs up along the Washington coast identifying aspects of the sanctuary. The idea is to create a scenic byway system to highlight the sanctuaries.

Carol Bernthal, Olympic sanctuary superintendent, said part of the difficulty has been restrictions on signs installed in Olympic National Park, which must meet certain design standards.

“We are working with them right now for a network of signs called ‘The Whale Trail,’ ” she said. “It’s focused on where you see whales around Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula.”

One sign already is up at Tongue Point on the Strait of Juan de Fuca and another one will soon be put up at Kalaloch.

“We also have a strategy for the south coast, but it’s just a matter of finding funding and partners for doing them,” Bernthal said. Currently, however, the funding is dependant on Congressional action, with one version of the 2013 budget providing no money and another providing $2 million. “So we have to get creative.”

Les Bolton, executive director of the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport and a member of the Olympic Coast advisory council, said he would soon be sailing through all the other the sanctuaries when the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain make a fall and winter voyage to California. Bolton said he would stop by the other sanctuaries to find out what they were doing to encourage tourism and public awareness of the sanctuaries.