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The One Simple Change That Could Save The World's Largest Mammal

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You'd think that a blue whale, weighing a whopping 200-tons, would be mostly safe from predators because of its sheer size. But one predator seems to be able to kill the largest animals on earth in a fleeting instant -- humans.

Blue whales populations have been slowly crawling back towards recovery since they gained protection from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1966, having been decimated by whaling in the 1900s. Now, they're facing a new, dire threat -- ship strikes from commercial vessels.

A new study published this week in the journal PLOS One used satellite data to determine that blue whale "hotspots" overlap alarmingly with shipping lanes near the Channel Islands off Los Angeles and the Farallon Islands off San Francisco every summer.

There are systems in place already of large commercial vessels to avoid collisions with ships, like speed limits and alarm systems. But those aren't enough, according to the new study, because whales are still getting hit. And despite their size, a blue whale is no match for a 220,000-ton cargo ship.

It's unclear exactly how many blue whales die at the hull of a container ship each year, because reporting is unreliable -- often, crew may not even know they've hit one.

But there is hope for the species -- and the solution, it seems, is already evident. The researchers say that changing shipping lanes to avoid whale hotspots could be a solution, particularly one of the southern California lanes that could be moved southward.

There is a hitch -- the new proposed area for shipping lanes is currently being used by the U.S. Navy for testing site, so logistically the change could be tricky. If the U.S. Navy complies, shipping companies could plot out a new route that would avoid whale sites. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is taking the lead, seeking to gather representatives of shipping companies, the U.S. Navy, and other stakeholders together to work out a new route.