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September 30th, 2021

Shipping companies receive awards for slowing to protect blue whales, blue skies

Awardees comment on vessel speed reduction program

MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, Yang Ming, Swire Shipping, and MOL ACE received Sapphire awards

The Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program recognized 16 global shipping companies for reducing speeds to 10 knots or less in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Southern California Region in 2020. 

The voluntary program is an initiative to cut air pollution, protect endangered whales, and reduce underwater noise. The 2020 program ran from May 15, 2020 through November 15, 2020. The companies received recognition in the 

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form of trophies, plaques, or certificates and financial incentive payments according to their levels of achievement. 


Three award tiers recognize participating companies based on the percent of distance their fleet traveled through the Vessel Speed Reduction (VSR) zones at speeds of 10 knots or less. Credit was only given if the average speed of a transit through an entire VSR Zone did not exceed 12 knots.

MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, Yang Ming, and MOL ACE notably achieved the Sapphire tier in the large company category (greater than 30 transits) by slowing down more than 800 transits, combined. Swire Shipping achieved the Sapphire tier in the small company category (less than 30 transits). For their outstanding commitment, all five of these companies earned the Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies Whale Tail award.

Seven companies – COSCO Shipping Lines, Evergreen, GALI, “K” Line, Maersk, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, and Swire Shipping – generously declined their financial incentive payment. Those funds will be reinvested in the 2021 program.

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A humpback whale breaches in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California. Photo: Robert Schwemmer, NOAA

Blue whales, blue skies

Shipping companies receive recognition and financial awards based on the percent of distance traveled by their vessels through the VSR zones at 10 knots or less and with an average speed of 12 knots or less. (The average baseline speed of participating ships prior to the incentive program is approximately 15 knots in the VSR zones

The 10-knot target follows the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) and United States Coast Guard request for all vessels (300 gross tons or larger) to slow down during the months of peak blue, humpback, and fin whale abundance to protect these endangered whales from deadly ship strikes.


Photo: John Calambokidis/Cascadia Research Collective

Ship strikes continue to be a global threat to all large whale populations. Reducing fatal ship strikes is a major priority of NOAA’s, especially in NOAA’s West Coast national marine sanctuaries. Documented deaths totaled 48 endangered whales from 2007-2019, and likely represent only a small fraction of the total number of ship strikes annually.


Air quality

The timing of the program also coincides with the season when ground-level ozone (smog) concentrations are typically high and potentially harmful to human health. The 10-knot target allows ships to travel at an efficient operating load, using less fuel and producing less pollution

Ocean-going vessels transiting the California coast generate nitrogen oxides (NOx, a precursor to smog), sulfur oxides (SOx), particle pollution, and greenhouse gases. These vessels account for more than 200 tons of NOx per day emitted off the coast of California, which affects ozone levels onshore in many regions of the state. 

The San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California Region (including Santa Barbara County, Ventura County, the greater Los Angeles area, and San Diego County) do not meet the state and/or federal air quality standards for ozone.

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Clean air is important for the health of our communities and our environment. Photo: Bay Area Air District

The VSR incentive program has expanded in scope and environmental benefits each year, including 2020, which marked the sixth year. The 2021 program began on May 15, 2021 and runs through November 15, 2021. There are 18 companies enrolled in the current year.


Awardees respond

Representatives from shipping companies commented about their involvement in the 2020 program:

Swire Shipping: Mugurel Calin, Operations Manager for North America: “We continue to be inspired by our peers, industry partners and colleagues for their tireless efforts in minimizing harm and protecting our oceans. This Award affirms our belief that collectively we can make a difference; firstly as a company, and secondly, as a member of the community that we live and work in. This has been the driving force behind SwireThrive, our group-level sustainability strategy which shapes both our thinking and program selection and implementation. In choosing to return the financial incentive, we hope to be able to contribute to the ongoing success of the program.


MSC: Stanley Kwiaton, General Manager of Port Operations - West Coast: “At MSC, we see the oceans as our home and are both dependent on and committed to fostering their health and resilience. This award is once again a testament to our translation of company values and commitment to concrete sustainability actions and stewardship of the ocean environment. As an award winner, we are delighted to be able to set an industry example by voluntarily reducing vessel speeds in areas where endangered whale species regularly feed, helping us improve the way we do business, while continuing to deeply care for our environment.”


Hapag Lloyd: Wolfram Guntermann, Director Regulatory Affairs & Sustainability:

“We are truly honored to receive again this prestigious award, please allow us to commend NOAA for carrying the torch for this remarkable initiative. Biodiversity is an integral part of our sustainability strategy, hence, the protection of whales has taken a vital part in this important effort for a long time and in the future.”


Yang Ming: Leo Chiang, Vice President of Marine Operations:  “One of Yang Ming’s priorities has been promoting the sustainability of the ocean and coastal environments, that is why we take immense pride in being a volunteer in the Blue Whales and Blue Skies Program, which helps reduce pollution and preserve and protect endangered whales.  We will continue our efforts to ensure the wellbeing of these amazingly beautiful creatures and healthy marine ecosystems.”


NYK RORO: Jack Duesler, Area Operations Manager, Pacific Southwest: “Working with NOAA and their affiliates has been a great experience. They encourage open communication and set difficult yet achievable goals. Our strive is still 100% participation as well as receiving the prestigious Sapphire award. We look forward to another successful year.”


Wallenius Wilhelmsen: Roger Strevens, Vice President, Global Sustainability: “Wallenius Wilhelmsen was proud to join the Blue Whales Blue Skies programme in May 2020, which we believe is an inspired approach to an important issue, one that sets a good model to follow.  With a gold award in our first year we are now busy redoubling our efforts in 2021.”


COSCO Shipping: Dong Hao, President: “COSCO Shipping is committed to the protection and sustainable use of ocean and marine resources for sustainable development. VSR program fits our sustainability goal, and we will continuously do our best to participate in and contribute to the program."


K Line: Lee Lara, General Manager, Pacific Southwest Region: “‘K’ Line is honored to be recognized by NOAA for its participation in their Protecting Blue Whales & Blue Skies Program and is committed to lending its support as NOAA continues with this worthwhile endeavor.”


Maersk: Lee Kindberg, Head of Environment & Sustainability - North America: “Maersk was pleased to continue to support the Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies Program again this year, both with our vessel participation and by directing that our incentive funds be used to support the program and research. This program is unique in its structure and highly effective in reducing risk to whales and improving air quality.”


Hyundai Glovis: Michael Suh, Ocean Carrier Service Supervisor: “Hyundai Glovis is proud to be a part of this esteemed program and will continue to partner with NOAA VSR Program to further develop a more sustainable eco-friendly future ahead.”

Evergreen Marine Corporation: Eric Hsieh, President: “As a partner in the VSR program, Evergreen continues in its mission to minimize its environmental impact on marine life. Therefore, we are honored to receive the Gold award granted as part of the VSR incentive program season of 2020. In the future, we will continue dedicating ourselves to this crucial environmental issue and hope that the incentive payment, which we will once more forego this year, will provide a positive contribution to the program.”

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The Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program is a collaborative effort by Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District; Ventura County Air Pollution Control District; Bay Area Air Quality Management District; Channel Islands, Greater Farallones, and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries; The Volgenau Foundation; California Marine Sanctuary Foundation; Greater Farallones Association; National Marine Sanctuary Foundation; and Environmental Defense Center.


For more information about the program, visit or

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