West Coast
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CA - This Channel Isn't Big Enough for Two Behemoths

Ships killed at least 20 whales in California’s Santa Barbara Channel in the past two years. Now, a nonprofit is demanding action.

In the spring, thousands of blue, fin, and humpback whales thread through California’s Santa Barbara Channel as they migrate to the cool waters of the northern Pacific. Navigating that narrow route, however, places the whales in the crosshairs of multi-tonne cargo ships heading to port.

Collisions with ships are one of the principal causes of death for baleen whales off the coast, and the problem is only getting worse. In 2018 and 2019, ships killed at least 20 whales in the channel. Dozens more likely met that same fate and now lie at the bottom of the ocean.

John Calambokidis, longtime whale behavior researcher and founder of Cascadia Research Collective in Washington State, says he sometimes sees 200 blue whales in a single outing, all very near the shipping lanes. “It’s a setup for high mortality,” he says.

Now, one nonprofit is demanding action. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is planning to sue the US National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Coast Guard for violating the Endangered Species Act, just as it did in 2008, following a year in which ships killed three blue whales in two weeks off Santa Barbara.

“Ship strikes are a primary threat to the recovery of great whales along the California coast,” says Brian Segee, CBD’s senior attorney. For fin whales and endangered blue whales, collisions are the most imminent threat, he adds.

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