Serendipity and Legislation Protect our Ocean Giants

Japan’s brutal, continued slaughtering of whales has long been a subject of eco-outrage, popularized by the activism of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. However, matters are beginning to seem more hopeful, as supply ships refuse to do business with the whaling industry (hugely unpopular largely thanks to the Sea Shepherds), thus crippling their ability to hunt. It is a small triumph-- but a triumph nevertheless. Read more about it here, on Global Animal. Triumphs of conservation efforts, while always positive matters, often seem quite far away from our everyday lives. After all, rarely do must of us living in the Los Angeles area witness famous, endangered wonders such as pandas or Siberian tigers on the freeway, at work, or at the Coffee Bean. This urban distance is deceptive, though; being a coastal region, a plethora of rare and wonderful species exist near us, they just happen to live beneath the surface of that sapphire horizon, the Pacific Ocean.

One of these great beasts is Balaenoptera Musculus- the great blue whale. A wonder of nature, the blue whale is the largest animal ever to exist on Earth, and a vital component of our Earth's marine ecology. They can eat up to 7,715 pounds of krill (small shrimp-like animals) per day! The blue whale and other baleen-feeding cetaceans are absolutely necessary to maintain the fragile balance of the ocean's ecosystems, and as such, their protection is crucial. The blue whale was almost wiped out mere decades ago because of commercial whaling's tragic excesses. According to an article by Brian Segee in Berkeley Law School's Ecology Law Quarterly, it was estimated that, in a period of less than seventy years, whalers wiped out about 999 of every 1000 blue whales in the Southern Antarctic! Thanks to a variety of activist and legislative efforts (such as the IWC's 1966 ban on blue whale hunting and eventual ban on all commercial whaling passed in 1985) , blue whales have slowly begun to repopulate. The United States, too, has passed legislation to protect these and other endangered species, most notably the Endangered Species Act and, with even further relevance to the blue whales, the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Despite the good intentions of these legislative victories, there exists a force in our country's waters which threatens these rare and beautiful giants... and it is happening virtually in our backyards. The Santa Barbara Channel, the passage of water which separates the Channel Islands from the Southern California Coastline, is home to the densest seasonal population of blue whales in the world, However, it also serves as the primary lane in and out of the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, which comprise the country’s busiest port complex. Two mile-wide shipping lanes run through the Santa Barbara Channel (one for ships going to the port complex, and another for ships leaving), and because of the United States' massive trade relationship with China, these lanes are frequently saturated with shipping vessels... and seasonally, with whales as well. As we are aware (those of us who live in the LA area, at least), too much traffic on the road increases the likelihood of collisions. The same principle applies in the water, much to the danger of our marine life, especially blue whales. According to the same Ecology Law Quarterly article, “While ship strikes have been implicated in the deaths of blue whales off the California coast since as early as 1980, the incidence of strikes has steadily risen, and in 2007 an unprecedented five blue whales were struck and killed in the Santa Barbara Channel” (Segee). Five: the number of toes on a foot or fingers on a hand. To us, five deaths may not sound like a significant number. Sadly, though, with blue populations as sparse as they are, five is sizable, when, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, the population of blue whales worldwide is estimated to be only between 1,300 and 2,000. Furthermore, another study cited in Segee’s article estimates that 292 were killed between 1975 and 2002; that is a tragically sizable portion of the population!

click to read about one tragic instance of whale-ship collision

However, there is hope for this unfortunate phenomenon... in the form of legislative serendipity. In an attempt to regulate air pollution from the shipping industry,the State of California passed a regulation known as the "Low Sulfur Rule" in July 2009, which essentially requires shipping vessels to burn cleaner, less-sulfuric fuels when operating within 24 miles of the California coastline. Because these "cleaner" fuels are more expensive, however, the shipping vessels responded by altering their routes so that they spend only minimal time within the regulatory zone. These new routes landed many shipping vessels within the US Navy's "Point Mugu Sea Range" where the military conducts various tests, specifically those related to weapons. Between October and December 2009, more than 55 ships transiting this approach were either diverted or asked to stop because of conflicts with the navy (Segee). Now, this is where the legal serendipity comes in: In response to the safety and security issues raised by this phenomenon, the US Coast Guard initiated a Port Access Route Study for the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex in April 2010.What this means is, the USCG will be conducting a study for the purpose of ensuring that the needs of the access routes are synthesize with the needs of other uses in the area... which, luckily, includes the existence of marine life; Congress passed a sweet slice of legislation called Ports and Waterways Safety Act in 1972, in response to a tragic grounding of an oil supertanker in the British channel. Its purpose, as outlined on the act itself, is "to promote navigation, vessel safety, and protection of the marine environment." Essentially, this Port Access Route Study is strong in three particular ways: 1. because it will be conducted under the terms of the Ports and Waterways Safety Act. 2. legally required transparency (which, in other words means: no sketchiness, information hidden from the public, or lying on the part of the government). 3. the requirement that the USCG consult with environmental groups throughout the Study (Segee). As long as environmental groups remain vigilant and the Coast Guard behaves in a manner of integrity, this Port Access Route Study provides a brilliant opportunity for the protection of our ocean giants. From Japan to right here in the Los Angeles area, recent events have brought hope for our endangered beauties. This is something to be thankful for in this holiday season; it is truly a blessing that we in the United States live in a country where we can have a hand in choosing policies that protect our animal citizens! Now, you may be wondering, how can we as individuals help? First and foremost, even though voting season has come and gone, stay informed. Watch this one closely; I know I will be. The Port Access Route Study information is all online, and it even invites questions and comments. Isn't it wonderful to live in a free country? Also, with the holiday season approaching, you can take the cultural pressure to buy things for people and turn it into an opportunity to contribute to one of the conservation groups that work so hard all year long to help protect our world's animals! Here are some ideas:

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has some amazing gifts, such as these adorable "species adoption kits!" A number of endangered species are available for "adoption"... even blue whales!

Sierra Club: if you've never felt bamboo fabric before... you are missing out. It's amazingly soft, as well as sustainable; I love my bamboo sheets, and these towels made by the Sierra Club look just cuddly and wonderful!

The Nature Conservancy: the year is almost over, and as such, 2010 calendars are just about obsolete! The Nature Conservancy calendars are always beautiful, and make wonderful gifts.

Happy Holidays, Elizabeth Neville at The Cornucopia Corner

(1) Reader Comment

  1. The blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth. For many years blue whales were aggressively hunted for their blubber and oil and their numbers were dramatically reduced. In the 1930- 31 season alone whalers killed almost 30 000 blue whales.