NOAA 99-R414
Contact: Matt Stout


The Navigation Subcommittee of the International Maritime Organization, a body of the United Nations, gave initial approval in London last week to a proposal to move certain types of large commercial ships further offshore to protect the resources of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and improve the safety of navigation, the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said today.

NOAA, which manages the sanctuary, and the U.S. Coast Guard presented the proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Large vessels such as container ships and bulk product carriers currently travel between 2.5 and 15 miles from the sanctuary's shoreline, posing a risk of catastrophic spills from the heavy fuel oil that they routinely carry to power themselves. The IMO subcommittee approved a proposal that would place these vessels further offshore in north-south tracks ranging from 13 to 20 nautical miles (nm) from shore between Big Sur and the San Mateo coastline, thereby reducing the risk of collision and grounding. In addition, ships which carry hazardous materials as cargo would be asked to follow north-south tracks between 25 and 30 nm from shore.

"Many of the marine animals in this region, such as sea otters and seabirds, are particularly susceptible to the effects of spilled oil," said William J. Douros, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. "These new tracks will help reduce the risk of a catastrophic spill within sanctuary waters by improving navigational safety and reducing the probability of an accident."

The proposal was developed over a two- year period through a series of workshops on the Central Coast sponsored by the sanctuary and the U.S. Coast Guard, including participants from government agencies, the shipping and oil industries, environmental groups and public officials.

"We're especially pleased that the international maritime community has agreed with the unanimous recommendations of regional conservation groups, regulators and the shipping industry," Douros added. "We worked hard as a group to develop a reasonable package of strategies. The IMO just validated the wisdom of those strategies."

The routing measures are designed to improve protection of the sanctuary while balancing the needs of commercial shipping, to ensure safe, efficient and environmentally sound transportation. "You can view these protections as premiums on a marine accident insurance policy," said Mike Van Houten, chief of the Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation Branch. "At a cost of just 20 to 30 minutes in additional transit time, we can reduce the probability of an already low-probability event. Given that even one such event is too many, the protections appear worth the cost."

The subcommittee's recommendations must receive final approval at another meeting of the IMO in the spring of 2000. If approved, the recommendations will be
finalized and added to the nautical charts used by mariners for navigation along California's rocky coast.