Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, December 8, 2022

Contact:

Brian Segee, Center for Biological Diversity, (805) 750-8852, bsegee@biologicaldiversity.org
Marcie Keever, Friends of the Earth, (415) 999-3992, mkeever@foe.org

Court Orders U.S. to Examine California Shipping Lanes’ Role in Endangered Whale Deaths

OAKLAND, Calif.— A federal court ruled in favor of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth Wednesday in their lawsuit challenging the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Coast Guard to protect endangered whales from being struck by ships using California ports.

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

Ship strikes are a leading cause of death for blue, fin and humpback whales off California’s coast. An August ship strike killed California’s most photographed whale, a beloved humpback known as Fran.

“Whales off California just got a bit of much-needed legal protection, and I’m glad the court understood that Coast Guard shipping lane decisions have life and death consequences for these magnificent endangered animals,” said Brian Segee, an attorney at the Center. “After more than a decade of delay, it’s time for federal officials to quickly come up with a better plan for routing and slowing down ships, since whales and sea turtles are facing deadly risks every day.”

Although the lanes route shipping traffic through several “hot spots” where whales congregate, including the Santa Barbara Channel and the northern approach to the San Francisco Bay, the Service concluded in a biological opinion that the designations would cause no “take” of any whales or sea turtles.

Wednesday’s court ruling rejected the Service’s conclusions, finding that its determination “defies logic,” and that it is “undisputed” that whales are struck and killed by ship strikes within the lanes.

“The federal government has ignored the disastrous impacts of vessel traffic for far too long,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director at Friends of the Earth. “The science is clear: better management of vessel speeds and routes will make a positive difference for marine ecosystems. It's about time the court directed the Service to take action.”

Following the court’s rejection of the biological opinion, the Coast Guard and the Service must conduct a new consultation that accounts for the impacts of the shipping lane designations on ship strikes. The agencies also must consider measures proven to reduce those impacts.

Researchers have consistently demonstrated that mandatory vessel speed limits and routing changes are the two most important measures that can be taken to reduce overlap between shipping traffic and whale-dense areas.

There were 49 documented instances of ships killing large whales off the California coast between 2007 and 2020. Scientists say the actual number could be 20 times higher, since most dead whales sink. Five whales have been killed by ships in the San Francisco Bay region this year alone, including the beloved Fran.

Environmental groups have long called for shipping speed limits and other maritime rules to better protect imperiled marine life, but the Service has repeatedly rejected those efforts.

The Center most recently petitioned the Service in April 2021 to issue a rule implementing a mandatory 10-knot speed limit for large vessels in the shipping lanes off the California coast. The petition also urged the agency to identify areas of seasonal importance for endangered whales. In April 2022 the Service rejected the petition, concluding that “at this time, it is not necessary and appropriate to regulate vessel speeds ... for the conservation of ... blue, fin, and humpback whales.”

RSDead_humpback_whale_Deborah_Svoboda_3_FPWC-scr
Dead humpback whale at Manhattan Beach, Half Moon Bay. Named “Fran” by whale watchers, this 17-year-old whale broke her neck in a collision with a ship, according to a necropsy performed on Aug. 29, 2022, by the Marine Mammal Center. Photo by Deborah Svoboda. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Friends of the Earth fights for transformational environmental policy and pushes political discourse to center justice and the environment.

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