Coast Guard Plays Traffic Cop to Whales, Shippers

By Matt Baume
|  Wednesday, Dec 1, 2010  |  Updated 6:15 AM PDT
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Coast Guard Plays Traffic Cop to Whales, Shippers

NBCNewYork

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The last thing anyone wants is to crash into a whale.

That's why the Coast Guard is studying ways to avoid collisions between whales and boats. A study now underway will determine whether changes to shipping lanes are necessary, as was done last year on the east coast. The Coast Guard is accepting public comment on the issue until January 20th.

This was a particularly gruesome year for whales. There have been five high-profile deaths since the summer. A mother and fetus washed ashore in Pescadero, a fin whale with a crumpled spine appeared on Ocean Beach, and another was snagged by a ship as it made its way to the Port of Oakland. Near the Farallones, a whale carcass with propeller injuries was spotted.

Many more have probably been killed and then vanished beneath the waves.

It's difficult for large ships to avoid the giant animals, in part because the whales are following their food sources directly into boats' paths. Whales eat krill, which were in plentiful supply this year. Nutrients rising from the sea floor have caused a larger than normal krill crop, and that's resulted in more whale sightings than ever. Unfortunately, the most popular spots for krill are also in the middle of shipping lanes.

Adjusting those lanes is crucial to protect marine sanctuaries. With ship traffic expected to double over the next decades, the Coast Guard may enforce stricter speed limits or employ observers to direct traffic away from animals.

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