Ships told to slow for whales in San Francisco Bay

Federal officials are asking large ships to slow down near San Francisco Bay to avoid killing the droves of whales feeding near the Northern California coast.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued the advisory Tuesday. It wants large vessels to reduce their speed to 10 knots, or about 11.5 mph, in the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. The U.S. Coast Guard is broadcasting a similar message.

"We can best protect endangered whales from ship strike by working with the shipping industry as well as whale experts, with minimum impacts on maritime commerce," said Maria Brown, the superintendent of NOAA's Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, in a press release.

The announcements follow the high profile deaths of whales fatally struck by ships in the Bay Area, such as the 47-foot fin whale that washed up near Point Reyes National Seashore in June. John Calambokidis, a Washington-based scientist who has studied ship strikes off the West Coast, estimated that dozens of whales were struck near San Francisco Bay in 2010. Many of these whales, including blue, fin and humpback, are endangered.

The federal officials' requests are not binding, so large vessels like freighters and cruise ships can keep traveling at full speed. The San Francisco Chronicle reported ( ) that NOAA officials said they would consider more stringently regulating shipping lane traffic if ships fail to slow down.

"We understand that ships are working on extremely tight schedules," Leslie Abramson of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We are trying to deal with the problem proactively, but if there's no cooperation, we could move toward regulatory action."

In response to these deaths, federal maritime officials also have approved a plan to curb ship strikes that includes better whale tracking and rerouting ships. It will likely take effect next year after final review by the United Nations International Maritime Organization.