Preventing Ship Strikes

July 2017

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is one of the best places in the world to see endangered blue whales. But these whales are also at risk from ship strikes. Watch our video to learn about a unique program that brought shipping companies, nonprofits, and government agencies together to solve this problem and help protect whales!


Between the coast of Southern California and the Channel Islands lies a 70 nautical mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean known as the Santa Barbara Channel.

The exciting things about this region, the Southern California Bight and the Santa Barbara Channel in particular is it's one of the most reliable places to see concentrations of blue whales anywhere in the world.

Blue whales occur throughout the world's oceans and occured in some of their largest numbers in the Southern Ocean. But right now with what whaling has done, this is probably the best place to see blue whales around the year.

There are areas that can get hundreds of blue whales in an area feeding and that's something you don't run into anywhere else in the world.

This same channel also serves as an important passageway for another ocean giant: container ships. Maritime shipping is the lifeblood of the global economy.

At any given moment across the globe, thousands of container ships are steaming across oceans, delivering 90% of our everyday goods and products.

In the Santa Barbara Channel alone, more than 2,700 ships power through these waters annually making it a very busy shipping lane.

One of the emerging threats to many large whale species, not just blue whales, has been ship strikes. These ships move incredibly fast and these whales that just are not used to this kind of a threat don't seem to know how to avoid that or even recognize it as a threat.

So that puts them in vulnerability of actually just being run over by the ship, either hit by the bow or sometimes hit by the propeller.

We understand that no ship captain wants to hit a blue whale or humpback whale or fin whale as they come through the channel.

We also understand that they have busy schedules to keep as they move the world's goods from Asia to the West Coast.

Our mandate at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary are to protect these blue, humpback, and fin whales as they come here every summer to feed.

Shipping has also been linked to increased air pollution in coastal communities.

We estimate that ships contribute more than 50% of our nitrogen oxides pollution in Santa Barbara County, and in Ventura County it's more than 25%, and we are very concerned about that because NOx combines to form ozone, which is a principal component of smog.

And it's very very harmful to human health.

We're worried about exhaust in this community.

Asthmatic children have inflamed airways.

These are the tubes that go into the lungs.

And they're very sensitive to anything that will make inflammation worse.

Nitrogen oxide is one of those things because it's converted by sunlight to ozone and it's a pro-inflammatory mediator, ozone is, and will make the inflammation in the lungs even worse, making it more difficult for them to breathe.

Groups from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties formed a unique partnership to try a new approach.

Voluntary vessels speed reduction.

The vessel speed reduction incentive program offers financial incentives to ships that are willing to slow down voluntarily as they pass through the Santa Barbara Channel.

On average, ships traveling through the Santa Barbara Channel are traveling 14 to 18 knots.

In the incentive-based program, we're asking that they slow down to 12 knots and we're offering a bonus if they're willing to slow down to 10 knots.

There are certain speeds where the vessels are more energy efficient and therefore use less fuel and produced fewer air emissions.

You know, reducing speed really does reduce air pollution.

The way that works, it's just like your car.

As you know, your car is more fuel efficient say if you're operating at 45 or 55 rather than say at 85.

So slowing down does get you that better fuel efficiency.

The same thing is true with a vessel.

By slowing down the vessel to something closer to the optimal speed, we can reduce fuel consumption and that reduces the air pollution.

Maersk is really committed to a healthy environment and that's why we really value this opportunity to partner with this innovative team on this voluntary speed reduction program This program is really what I think we all aspire to achieve.

A program that achieves the results on a voluntary basis, where private industry sees that there is a better way of doing things that still allows them to achieve their bottom line but is being sensitive to the impact to the environment.

It's always gratifying when you can work in partnership with private industry and we've been very excited to see the way the shipping companies have really come to the table, have talked to us about the program, have helped us form the program, and are now very actively participating in the program.

Initially as usual we're a little reluctant, but when we actually got to the point that I picked up the phone, talking to another human face, and it opened up the dialogue and realized that NOAA wasn't out there to be very heavy-handed with what you're trying to accomplish and in trying to have it one way it's been two ways.

Slowing ships down is a solution to multiple environmental challenges.

Slower ships are safer ships for whales.

Slower ships emit less air pollution.

And slower ships are quieter ships, reducing the noise impacts in a very noisy ocean.

Fifty years ago many scientists who studied whales thought the blue whale was doomed to extinction.

And we're fortunate now that we've seen that turn around.

Populations around the world are slowly recovering and one of the biggest success stories we have here is in the Santa Barbara Channel.

I think all the partners in this program recognized that it's a very special project.

We've brought together really diverse interests -- government agencies, nonprofits, private industry -- and created a voluntary, non-regulatory solution that addresses all these problems together -- air pollution, greenhouse gases, whale protection -- in this very special marine environment.

We look forward to continuing and expanding this program.