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San Francisco Bay ship traffic to be rerouted to protect whales

SAN FRANCISCO — Scientists studying the carcass of a 47-foot fin whale that washed up on a beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore last month found the creature's spine and ribs severed, likely from the propeller of one of the huge cargo ships that sail those waters.

There have been many victims of such accidents in recent years as migrating blue, fin and humpback whales have been lured close to California's shore by plentiful krill, the shrimp-like organisms they eat. All three species are endangered.

Now, after a two-year effort spurred by the uptick in accidents, federal maritime officials have approved a plan to protect whales in and around San Francisco Bay. It includes rerouting shipping traffic and establishing better ways to track whale locations.

The changes crafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shipping industry representatives, whale researchers and the Coast Guard will likely take effect next year, after a final review by the United Nations International Maritime Organization.

"In 2010 it really struck home when a female blue whale carrying a calf was found dead on the beach," said Maria Brown, NOAA's superintendent for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. "And blue whales' numbers are so small — to lose a female and a new whale coming into the population really sent home the message that we needed to look at the whale strike issue."

The shipping industry worked with federal authorities to establish new cargo lanes in one of the world's busiest ports.

"Nobody wants to hit a whale, just like anybody driving down the highway doesn't want to hit anything either," said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, who worked on the plan. "We want to do whatever can be done to mitigate the risk, but do it based on good science and good management strategies as opposed to saying, 'Let's just try this and see if it works.'"

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