Partnerships power efforts to protect blue whales and blue skies

Savanna Mahn

February 2018

aerial photo of two blue whales swimming near the surface
Two blue whales, the largest living creature ever, swim through Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

Distant islands lift craggy heights toward a blue sky. Below the water, the mixing of warm and cool currents drive a complex and rich ecosystem that supports dozens of species of fish, birds, and marine mammals. At the surface, kayakers, fishing boats, and charter vessels enjoy the water and wildlife. Among them, a massive freighter, a marvel of modern engineering and technology, heads toward the safety of port. Dolphins dance at its bow; overhead, gulls and pelicans swoop and dive above the waves, seeking lunch. Whales breach the surface, take a breath, and return to the depths. Welcome to California's Channel Islands, so productive, so unique, so beautiful, they are protected by a national marine sanctuary, national park, and several state protected areas as well.

The Channel Islands provide a wilderness experience for those who seek it; they also bustle with recreational and commercial activity. Finding innovative ways to protect its resources while supporting important sustainable uses is an ongoing challenge to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and its partners. Designated in 1980, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary protects approximately 1,470 miles of marine resources surrounding the San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara islands.

Anacapa Island Light Station
Anacapa Island Light Station has helped guide vessel traffic through the Santa Barbara Channel since 1932. Photo: National Park Service

The marine shipping industry is a major contributor to the national economy and provides transportation for goods around the world, all of which move through large industrial ports. The Santa Barbara Channel region is heavily transited by large commercial vessels accessing two of the nation's busiest ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach. The channel and surrounding region are also home to aggregations and seasonal feeding grounds of whales including the endangered blue, humpback, and fin whales. The high activity of large commercial vessels in this area poses several challenges, the most pressing of which are ship strikes on whales (when a ship accidentally hits a whale, which can cause injury and death) and air pollution and greenhouse gas emission.

Realizing that action was needed, in 2014, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) formed the Marine Shipping Working Group to address shipping-related concerns in and around the national marine sanctuary. Out of discussions in the working group, the idea was realized that slowing down vessels would both reduce emissions and the possibility of whale strikes.

whale tail breaching with a cargo vessel in the background
In the distance behind a blue whale, a cargo vessel traverses the Santa Barbara Channel. Photo: John Calambokidis/Cascadia Research

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary worked with partners, including the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, to initiate a vessel speed reduction incentive trial. The trial was held from July through November 2014 to evaluate the use of monetary incentives and positive public relations to slow ship speeds in the area and assess how it would impact air quality and whale populations. Seven global shipping companies – COSCO, Hapag-Lloyd, K-Line, Maersk, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and United Arab Shipping Company – participated by slowing ship speeds for 27 trips through the channel from 14-18 knots to 12 knots with an incentive payment of $2,500 per trip. The trial achieved a reduction of 12.4 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions and more than 500 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The speed reduction also greatly reduced the chance of fatal ship strikes on whale populations.

The 2014 incentive trial was such a success that unanimous support was expressed for a second program. The 2016 Vessel Speed Reduction incentive program was launched from July through November 2016. The incentive was lowered to $2,100 per trip and ship speeds reduced to less than 12 knots. Ten global shipping companies participated by slowing ship speeds for 50 vessel transits. The result reduced 25.6 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions and more than 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases.

two kayakers paddling out to sea
The Channel Islands are enjoyed by many different kinds of recreaters, including kayakers, like these, as well as divers, fishers, boaters, and wildlife watchers. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

Today this project, now dubbed the Blue Whales and Blue Skies Vessel Speed Reduction Program, enjoys continuing success and expansion. In 2017, 11 global shipping companies helped cut more than 80 tons of smog-forming emissions and slowed to speeds much safer for whales. The program was geographically expanded to include speed reduction zones in the San Francisco Bay Area in addition to the Santa Barbara Channel region, which added Monterey Bay, Greater Farallones, and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. More than 140 transits were verified as successfully reducing speeds to 12 knots or less and more than half received a bonus for slowing to 10 knots or less. The program reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by 83.5 tons and greenhouse gases by 2,630 metric tons.

The success of the Blue Whales and Blue Skies program speaks to the importance of working cooperatively across sectors--and the successes that come when we do. As Chris Mobley, Superintendent of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary states, "The expansion of the vessel speed reduction program in 2017 demonstrates that ocean commerce and ocean conservation can work together when the shipping industry, NGOs, and government are in partnership."

Shipping companies participating in the Blue Whales and Blue Skies Program received awards during a ceremony on March 1, 2018. Photo: Wes Martin/National Marine Sanctuary Foundation

"This program continues to improve, with more agency and industry partners working together toward shared goals," said Aeron Arlin Genet, Director of Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. "Most notably in 2017, we successfully expanded the program to two speed reduction zones and secured pollution reductions along the California coast in the Santa Barbara Channel and Bay Area regions. We look forward to what a program for the entire California coast could achieve."

And that's nothing to be be blue about!

Savanna Mahn is a constituent and legislative affairs volunteer intern at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.