NOAA 2000-052
Contact: Matt Stout


The threat of hazardous spills resulting from vessel collisions and groundings along California's central coast was greatly reduced today, as the United Nations' International Maritime Organization finalized a U.S. proposal to move large ships further offshore and modify certain approaches to and from major ports.

These new routing measures are primarily designed to improve protection of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Gulf of the Farallones and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries, and to ensure safe, efficient and environmentally sound transportation within this vital global trade corridor. Officials from NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard announced the details of the IMO approval at a ceremony held on San Francisco's Yerba Buena Island today.

Meeting in London, the IMO gave final approval to the shipping lane proposal developed through a two-year collaborative effort led by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the U.S. Coast Guard. In a series of meetings along the central California coast participants from local, state and federal government agencies, the shipping and oil industries, environmental groups and elected officials played key roles in crafting the final solution

"This landmark agreement is an excellent example of how NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries can be a catalyst to bring agencies, industry and environmental groups together to protect marine resources and ensure the viability of the region's critical shipping industry," said Secretary of Commerce William Daley. "This cooperative effort allowed the group to reach consensus on the vessel traffic recommendations and stands as a model for resolving other resource management issues around the country."

More than 4,000 large vessels transit the central California coast every year, most traveling between 2.5 and 15 miles from the Monterey Bay Sanctuary's shoreline. They pose a potential risk of catastrophic spills from the large amounts of heavy fuel oil they use in their powerplants. The proposal announced today will place large vessels further offshore in north-south tracks ranging from 13 to 20 nautical miles from shore between Big Sur and the San Mateo coastline. Ships carrying hazardous materials would follow north-south tracks between 25 and 30 NM from shore. Tankers would remain at least 50 NM offshore. To facilitate the alignment of these offshore routes, the proposal also extends the vessel traffic separation lanes in the western end of the Santa Barbara Channel and rotates the southern-most approach into San Francisco Bay further offshore to reduce the risk of grounding.

"These vessel routing initiatives will enhance the safety of navigation along the California Coast by increasing order and predictability for vessel traffic patterns," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater. "This will reduce the already low risk of collision for vessels navigating in and around the marine sanctuaries."

Secretary Slater also noted that routing vessels further offshore will provide more time for responding to disabled vessels to prevent them from grounding. At a cost of just 20 to 30 minutes in transit time, the new routing measures will reduce the likelihood of an already extremely low probability event.

"Following on the heels of President Clinton's announcement last Friday calling for increasing marine protections, this agreement helps promote safety and protect the California coast for future generations," said Scott Gudes, NOAA's deputy under secretary of oceans and atmosphere.

The California sanctuaries are home to an extraordinarily diverse array of marine mammals, sea birds, fish and invertebrates. Many of these inhabitants, such as sea otters and seabirds, are particularly susceptible to the effects of an oil spill. "I am very pleased that this important initiative, developed with extensive local involvement, was formally adopted internationally," said William J. Douros, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. "These measures will greatly reduce the chance for a catastrophic accident in our sanctuary."