How we can keep the world's largest migrants safe

How we can keep the world's largest migrants safe
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As our waterways have become significantly cleaner in recent years, in large part due to successful conservation efforts, humpback whales have started to feed with regularity in places like San Francisco Bay and Boston Harbor. It’s a triumphant comeback story for the whales, whose North Pacific population has grown from about 2,000 in the 1970s to more than 20,000 today.

But with these massive mammals entering an environment dominated by humans for so long, we’ve also seen a sadly predictable consequence. In September a 1,000-foot container ship collided with a humpback whale in San Francisco Bay — the first-ever confirmed ship-strike death of one in those waters, and another humpback died from a ship strike off the Jersey Shore.

And as gray whales begin their annual Pacific trek south in the coming weeks, the longest migration of any mammal, they are also finding themselves in sticky situations. Last year, a gray whale died after an impact with a ferry near Seattle, and several were killed along the California coast due to ship strikes.


It’s a welcome sign of progress that these giant mammals want to live in the healthier and cleaner waters around our major cities. Indeed, we are fortunate to see these charismatic creatures coming here to feed, and even breed. But it creates a new set of challenges.

The Marine Mammal Center is the largest marine mammal hospital in the world, and has been conducting research on marine mammals since 1975. We’ve seen how their environment has changed — and we know what has to be done to make it sustainable.

The most important thing people living in areas with whales can do is to slow down while they’re on the water. Voluntary programs in place at marine sanctuaries encourage boaters to decrease their speed to ten knots, which keeps whales safer. 

But there’s also a role to play for Americans thousands of miles from the ocean, and that’s to encourage government officials to use their power to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable migrants.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed designating critical habitat for three populations of humpback whales on the West Coast, which would extend the range of protected waters. That’s a plan we wholeheartedly support.

Currently, protections afforded humpback whales offshore in the nearby Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries, such as seasonal vessel speed reductions, are absent in San Francisco Bay. But with humpbacks in San Francisco Bay being part of a “new normal,” giving them these same protections in their new habitat is both appropriate and timely.

More importantly, this designation would set an important precedent. If we can protect marine wildlife in one of the most dynamic urban areas in the world, we can certainly do so in other busy ports.

The presence of whales in some of our busiest waterways is a huge success. With some minor fixes, we can make it a lasting one.

Dr. Jeff Boehm, DVM, Dipl. ACAW, has been the CEO of The Marine Mammal Center since 2008. A veterinarian focused on marine wildlife, he previously served as senior vice president of Animal Health and Conservation Science at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and is currently the immediate past president of the American College of Animal Welfare.