By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Several endangered whale species may get a new lease on life when some cargo shipping lanes off the California coast are shifted next year.
Routes due to be changed by June 2013 are used by ocean-going cargo vessels, tugboats and automobile carriers near San Francisco Bay, the Channel Islands in central California and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, environmental officials said on Friday.
The shipping channels overlap with whale feeding and migration areas, and several blue whales and fin whales have been killed by ships, they said.
"The issue really struck home for us" with those deaths, said Michael Carver, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deputy superintendent of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary in northern California.
The changes will not reduce the risk to zero, said Sean Hastings, a resource protection coordination with NOAA's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
Financial incentives to get vessels to slow down on their approach to the California coast are also being considered, Hastings said, adding that boats are now asked to voluntarily slow down but they are not doing it.
The Cordell sanctuary and other protected patches of ocean near San Francisco and the Channel Islands are habitats for blue, humpback and fin whales, which are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In 2007, four blue whales were believed to have been killed by ships near the Channel Islands, according to NOAA, and five whales were killed off the coast of San Francisco and in nearby areas in 2010.
This year, a fin whale was struck by a ship and died off the coast of San Francisco and a vessel is believed to have killed another fin whale that washed ashore in Malibu, near Los Angeles, NOAA said.
In November, the International Maritime Organization, which governs shipping worldwide, said it had adopted changes to lanes off the coast of California to reduce whale strikes by ships. One of the proposals, for example, involves moving a shipping lane near the Channel Islands north by one mile to avoid a whale feeding area, Hastings said.
Carver said the U.S. Coast Guard would consult with the shipping industry and the public before the lane adjustments take effect.
(Additional reporting by Dana Feldman; Editing by Tim Gaynor)