In recent years, some of the world’s biggest maritime companies have made an effort to slow down in the crowded shipping lanes off the California coast as their vessels access busy ports in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay.

Those speed reductions are crucial, federal wildlife officials and conservationists say, to help stop the collisions that kill dozens of endangered blue, fin and humpback whales in that area every year. Those whale strikes must be curbed significantly if those species are to recover, they say.

However, Matson and Pasha Hawaii – the two primary shippers that carry consumer goods, food and other supplies to Hawaii from the West Coast – have failed to make any meaningful change in their speeds while passing through those sensitive zones, data obtained by Civil Beat shows.

The data shows Matson and Pasha are exceeding the federally recommended speed of 10 knots or less during whale season in the waters off Southern California and San Francisco about 80% of the time, frequently running at speeds faster than 15 knots through the sensitive zones.

Further, Matson, the larger of the two Hawaii shippers, has “consistently ignored” calls to slow down to 10 knots or less during whale season, researchers based on the U.S. mainland say.

Matson container ship Daniel K Inouye docked at Honolulu harbor.
Matson has one of the worst performances of all major shippers complying with voluntary speed limits to protect whales off the California coast. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

An analysis of thousands of vessel speed records shows that Matson and Pasha have two of the worst records by far when it comes to complying with the voluntary 10-knot speed limit outside those California ports, where the whales migrate each year to feed.

Only one other maritime company, a ferry service called the Catalina Express, had a poorer compliance record over the past five years, the vessel data shows.

The Hawaii shippers’ track record prompted Whale Safe, a group led by scientists that provides real-time data on whales’ presence and tracks how well maritime companies comply with the recommended speed limit, to give those companies failing grades.

Matson, in particular, has “ignored our outreach,” said Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and a marine biology professor at the University of California Santa Barbara.

A Matson representative, meanwhile, said that the company’s ability to run more of its vessels at slower, whale-friendly speeds off the California coast is hampered by Hawaii’s so-called “just-in-time” economy, in which the islands’ shelves need to be constantly replenished every several days because there’s virtually no longterm storage space.

It’s a unique operational challenge that most of the other major shippers accessing the California ports don’t have, according to Matson spokesman Keoni Wagner.

Nonetheless, slowing down a few knots in those limited zones along the coast would add a few extra hours to what’s ultimately a days-long transit across the Pacific Ocean, according to Sean Hastings, a federal resource protection coordinator with the Channel Islands Marine National Sanctuary. Other researchers who study the zones have reached the same conclusion.

Further, other large shipping companies face similar “just-in-time” constraints transporting perishable goods across the ocean and they’ve still managed to slow down in the whale zones, according to McCauley.

Matson officials weren’t available last week to discuss the matter further beyond a statement provided by Wagner. Pasha representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A Final Journey

More than 80 endangered whales are now estimated to be killed each year across the West Coast when struck by large vessels, according to McCauley.

Many of the whales that migrate to Hawaii each year are among those vulnerable when they’re on the West Coast, researchers say. At least one of them was struck last year.

Several weeks ago, a female humpback popularly known as Moon arrived in the waters off Maui for what experts believe will be her last journey to the islands. In September, she had been spotted with a broken spine 3,000 miles to the west off Canada. The injury is all but certain to have been caused by a ship strike, believed to be very painful, and likely to result in Moon’s death.

“If you care about Hawaii whales, you need to think about their safety in places like California and Alaska” during the months they’re not in the islands, McCauley said.

A humpback whale known to observers as Moon, similar to the one seen breaching here, recently completed her migration to Hawaii from Canadian waters with a broken spine due to ship strike. She’ll likely die from the injury, researchers say. NOAA/Doug Perrine

Some of the whales that have been fatally struck wash ashore. The carcass of Fran, a popular and heavily photographed whale, came ashore in September south of the Golden Gate Bridge with a broken neck, most likely caused by a ship strike. Others are discovered still wrapped around the bows of ships as they arrive in port, Hastings said.

Most whales killed in ship collisions there are never found because they sink to the ocean floor, according to McCauley and other researchers. For every fatal strike that’s documented, there could be as many as 10 others that go undetected out at sea, they add.

Each loss is significant.

“Any time you take one out of the population in a slow-growing species, it heightens the risk of them not rebounding,” said Callie Steffen, a project scientist at the Benioff Initiative.

There’s no record of any whale strikes associated with either Matson or Pasha vessels, according to Hastings.

But federal officials are rarely able to determine which vessel hit a whale when its carcass washes ashore, he added.

McCauley helped launch Whale Safe about two years ago amid researchers’ growing concerns about the endangered mammals’ plight as they migrate to feed off the California coast each year from approximately May to December.

During that season, Whale Safe enables vessels in the California shipping lanes to check whether there’s a high chance of whales feeding nearby as they navigate those waters.

It also monitors whether the large ships of 300 gross tons or larger are running at 10 knots or less, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Vessel Speed Reduction program.

That voluntary NOAA program, meanwhile, has managed to boost the maritime industry’s overall compliance rate with the voluntary speed limit to around 70%, according to Hastings. It’s substantially improved conditions in the channel, but the rate needs to be closer to 100% to help the endangered whales recover, he added.

NOAA currently faces pressure from conservation groups to make the 10-knot speed limit off the California coast mandatory, not voluntary. On the East Coast, that speed limit is already mandatory as officials try to help the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale recover.

But even as the industry moves to improve, Matson and Pasha remain firmly at the back of the pack, the historical vessel-speed data shows.

What The Numbers Show

During the past five whale seasons, Matson’s fleet followed NOAA’S recommended 10-knot speed limit just 16% of the time in the shipping lanes outside Southern California, according to speed data on thousands of large vessels that was provided by Steffen and analyzed by Civil Beat.

It followed the standard just 24% of the time in the waters near the San Francisco Bay.

Pasha, meanwhile, followed the 10 knots-or-less standard just 11% of the time in Southern California and 7% of the time in San Francisco during the past five whale seasons, the data shows.

At the same time, both Matson and Pasha frequently sped through those sensitive offshore zones at speeds of 15 knots or higher. They ran at those speeds far more often than the major maritime companies operating in the shipping lanes, the data shows.

Wagner, of Matson, said that the Hawaii shipper “has been a longtime supporter and participant in the NOAA programs encouraging ships to reduce speeds in certain corridors.”

“We instruct all of our vessels to abide by these … to the greatest extent possible,” Wagner said in an email.

However, Hastings said that NOAA was prompted in 2022 to set minimum participation standards after companies such as Matson would sign up to get the recognition of participating but then barely follow through.

“Unfortunately, in looking at their ship speeds, across all their ships, they had very low levels of cooperation,” Hastings said of those companies.

The federal Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program, which Matson had previously joined, started requiring that participating companies observe the speed limit 35% of the time, Hastings said. Matson opted to no longer participate, he added.

“We’re not in the shame game, but we can’t give positive recognition to the lowest-performing company,” Hastings said.

Maps of the shippings lanes and whale sightings.
This map show the shipping lanes and whale sightings off of the California coast near San Francisco from Jan. 1, 2020, to Aug. 31, 2022. Courtesy: Benioff Initiative/2022

Other major shipping companies have demonstrated that it’s possible to significantly slow down their vessels in the California shipping lanes. MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, for example, has complied with the recommended speed limit about 88% of the time in Southern California and 86% of the time in San Francisco, the data shows.

"This is certainly no small feat, but we managed to accomplish it by working directly with our operation personnel, crew, and port managers to ensure company-wide awareness of our protocols," MSC said in a email regarding its speeds of 10 knots or less. "We created best practices through practical training and education on the importance of marine life protection as well."

Another large company, Maersk, regularly consults with Whale Safe to vet its score and see how it might do better, McCauley said. French shipper CMA CGM sends whale conditions directly to its captains and is one of the most-improved because “they took this very seriously," he added.

Shipping is "a very complex business,” McCauley acknowledged. "But the folks that are in charge of these routes are some of the most sophisticated logisticians in the world."

According to Steffen, slowing from 13 knots down to 10 knots while passing across the length of the California whale zones would add about 3.5 hours to the Southern California trip and a couple of hours to the San Francisco trip.

"It’s a small amount of time," McCauley said. "It’s a very minor ask."

Improvement On The Horizon?

Hawaii doesn't have the same federally recommended 10-knots-or-less speed limit for large vessels as California because the islands’ waters don’t see nearly the same traffic there, officials say.

Thus, Young Brothers, another prominent Hawaii shipping company, isn’t getting the same scrutiny as Matson and Pasha. Its vessels only do interisland runs and don’t operate in California.

The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach are the two busiest ports in the country, and the shipping lanes to access them extend more than 100 miles north into the Santa Barbara Channel.

Hawaii state officials do, however, recommend that the smaller vessels typically moving near whales in the island waters, such as tour boats and fishing vessels, go no faster than 15 knots when the animals are around.

They also recommend those boats slow to 6 knots when approaching and leaving within 400 yards of whales.

Matson recently replaced six aging vessels in its fleet with newer, faster ones, Wagner said. It’s also retrofitting three of its vessels to run on cleaner liquid natural gas for fuel and it has commissioned three additional ships to run on LNG, he added.

“Once those projects are complete over the coming years, the speed of our newer vessels outside the program corridors (in California) will improve our ability to meet the target speeds within them more often,” he wrote.

Hastings, meanwhile, still hopes that the Hawaii shippers will demonstrate substantive improvement on their track records in the waters where whales are most vulnerable.

“We do want to work with Matson and Pasha and bring them back in. We’d love to hear their ideas,” he said.

“It does start with slowing down, and the larger companies have shown an ability to do that.”

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