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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 7:35 pm | Fog/Mist 60º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: Singing the Blues for Blue Whales

Panamax ships, those exceeding 950 feet in length and 106 feet in width, cannot currently pass through the Panama Canal, but they do traverse our Channel.
Panamax ships, those exceeding 950 feet in length and 106 feet in width, cannot currently pass through the Panama Canal, but they do traverse our Channel. (Karen Telleen-Lawton / Noozhawk photo)

From the foothills, the sea lives up to its Pacific name. It seems changeless, serene and brilliant blue. Down at sea level there’s plenty of action, both above and below the surface.

Currently the ocean’s function as a traffic corridor is in the news. Some news is good, but another development has me singing the blues.

First is the good news: Recently, a federal judge in Hawaii ruled that the Navy was negligent in declaring that its sonar testing program didn’t significantly harm whales and other marine wildlife.

The settlement calls for bans on mid-frequency sonar and explosives between Catalina Island and San Nicolas Island, near San Diego, and offshore from parts of Hawaii.

The Navy must use extreme caution in feeding habitat and migration corridors for blue, fin and gray whales.

Just when you think we’ve accomplished something for marine mammals, however, we confront them with some new adversity.

Ever since returning from a day trip to the Panama Canal (a stop-over between Santiago, Chile and L.A.), I’ve been brooding.

Actually, I found the Canal amazing. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the locks which raise and lower mammoth ships in less than 20 minutes using simply the power of gravity.

Ever since the Canal became the property of Panama in 1999, it has been the cash cow supporting a healthy economy — the country’s economy is considered the most vibrant in Central America. 

Panama has been working on expanded canals since 2007. They were set to open late last year for the Canal’s 100th anniversary but are now scheduled to open in early 2016.  

The expanded canals will allow larger ships to pass through, changing the definition of panamax, a term that refers to the size limits for ships traveling through the Panama Canal. 

The current limits are generally 950 feet long, 106 feet wide and 39.5 feet deep. Ships too large for the locks were called post-panamax.

The new panamax maximum dimensions are about one and a half times the current maximum and can carry twice the tonnage of cargo.

Nothing these days is done without some form of environmental mitigation, and the Canal museum points out many ways the new locks are environmentally superior.

For one thing, they recycle water. The current locks draw huge amounts of fresh water from Gatun Lake to provide the differential depth.

The new locks will have holding tanks to reuse water. 

Disputes about the new locks’ effects center on the environment, nearby communities, primary forests and reserves, archaeological sites and agricultural and tourist areas, but Panama’s National Association for Nature Conservation projects that the new locks and water-saving basins will result in only very low levels of salinization of waters of Gatun Lake.

If salinization is kept at low levels, they say, biodiversity, biological separation of the oceans and water quality can be maintained.

But what about us? I can’t help wondering about the effect of new panamax ships on “our” blue whales. I don’t know for sure whether post-panamax ships already traverse our channel, but the Ventura branch of the US Power Squadrons notes ships “up to 1000 feet” make their way through our area, and those ships correspond to regular panamax length.

Alarmingly, an article on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association website discussing right whale strikes on the Eastern seaboard warns that post-panamax ships face a much larger risk of “crabbing,” swinging sideways in 15-knot winds or more when they slow down for whales.

In effect, these ships can be too large to control, and that has me singing the blues for our blue whales.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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