A Hyundai container ship.
(NOAA/Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary )

Have you seen the glut of large ships off our coastline? We did too — here’s what we’ve learned about them

Backed up shipping traffic at the Port of Oakland is forcing large tankers and cargo ships to wait offshore in the Monterey Bay, but many are stationed too close to sensitive coastal habitat.

If you’ve gazed out at the western horizon lately, you may have noticed enormous cargo ships and tankers floating offshore. Since February of this year, up to 12 of these large vessels have been drifting in the Monterey Bay at any given time.

According to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, people all along the coast of the Monterey Bay have been calling in sightings of these ships, and they have sometimes been spotted within five miles of the coast.

Here’s everything we know about what’s going on — including concerns about the ships’ proximity to the coastal habitat:

Where are the ships from and what are they doing here?

The ships are stuck in a long-distance traffic jam, waiting for an opening at the Port of Oakland.

As global trade ramps back up, especially with Asia, the influx of cargo into the U.S. is booming. “We’ve had a large intake of cargo vessels coming from other countries,” said Coast Guard Lieutenant Kyle Clauson.

The port of Oakland reported an all-time high in container volume in March. “Ships are full, ocean freight rates are sky high and the need for empty containers to ship more cargo is never-ending,” Port of Oakland Maritime Director Bryan Brandes in a statement about the new record. “We just don’t see conditions easing in the next several months.”

Oakland is one of the busiest ports in the United States, but it has limited space and the record-breaking imports are causing traffic congestion. The vessels in the Monterey Bay are just “drifting,” according to Karen Grimmer, the resource protection coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They’re in a holding pattern, waiting for a spot to open up for them in Oakland.

This isn’t the first time congestion at the Port of Oakland has backed up ships into the Monterey Bay — it happened last April, around the beginning of the pandemic. “It’s infrequent, but it has happened before,” Grimmer said. Clauson said he expects “a few more months” of the large increase in traffic before things settle back down to pre-COVID normal.

How close are they and are any of our natural habitats being endangered?

“We’ve been getting calls from the public about people seeing containers right off the coastline,” Grimmer said. “Five miles sounds far away, but it’s pretty close.”

This is much closer than the recommended distances set forth by the International Maritime Organization to protect sensitive habitats within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The guidelines, which encourage ships to remain at least 15 nautical miles offshore (25 if carrying hazardous cargo and 50 if carrying oil) are meant to “enhance the safety and navigation of those vessels, including oil tankers, that are transiting through a National Marine Sanctuary that has a lot of sensitive wildlife,” Grimmer said.

Grimmer says the worst-case scenario officials are trying to avoid is an oil spill as a result of a collision, grounding, or other accident. The farther a spill is from the coastline, the more time authorities have to contain it before kelp forests, seabird nesting grounds, and marine mammal rookeries are damaged.

Should we be concerned?

The non-compliance usually appears to be due to a lack of awareness of the sanctuary and its protected wildlife. According to Grimmer, NOAA has coordinated several requests through the U.S. Coast Guard for vessels to keep their distance, in addition to sending out a marine safety information bulletin.

Grimmer said that as soon as vessels are notified, “they comply very quickly.”