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August 29, 2023

Global shipping companies receive awards for reducing speeds off California coast to protect blue whales and blue skies

Eight companies merit top “Whale Tail” award

Shipping companies received Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies awards. Photo_.Anastasia

Shipping companies received awards for reducing speeds in the 2022 “Protecting Blue Whales & Blue Skies” program. Twenty three shipping companies participated, transiting at 10 knots or less in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Southern California region. The program’s Southern California region extends from Point Arguello (in Santa Barbara County) to waters near Dana Point (by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach). 


The voluntary incentive program ran May 1, 2022 through December 15, 2022. Participation was greater than any previous year, and increased from eighteen shipping companies participating in 2021.

Shipping companies received recognition and financial awards based on the percent of distance traveled by their vessels through the Vessel Speed Reduction (VSR) zones at 10 knots or less and with an average speed of 12 knots or less. 

The three award tiers are Sapphire (85-100% of fleet total distance in VSR zones traveled at ten knots or less), Gold (60-84%), and Blue Sky (35-59%). Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders on each ship transmit the ship’s speed and location. AIS data was analyzed for each fleet and the company’s performance was classified by tier. Companies that performed at the Gold or Sapphire level were offered a financial incentive. 

Eight participating companies reached the Sapphire level, the most in the top category since the program began. They include Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL), Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), Swire Shipping, Yang Ming, COSCO Shipping, NYK Ro-Ro, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, and CSL Group.

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Eight companies reached the Sapphire level. | Credit: Blue Whales and
Blue Skies Partners

For the fifth year in a row, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) notably achieved the Sapphire tier in the large fleet category and demonstrated that advance planning enables ships to adjust their schedule to cooperate with the VSR program without disrupting operations. Orient Overseas Shipping Line, a new participant in the program, notably achieved a 95% cooperation level in 2022, reducing speeds to 10 knots or less for over 15,000 miles in the California zones. 




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The ten-knot target complements the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Coast Guard, and Environmental Protection Agency requests for all vessels (300 gross tons or larger) to reduce speeds during the months of peak air pollution and endangered blue, humpback, and fin whale abundance to protect these whales from ship strikes.

Ship strikes are a major threat to whales globally and to the recovery of endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales in California waters. Reducing the risk of ship strikes is a major priority of NOAA’s, including NOAA’s West Coast national marine sanctuaries. From 2007-2022, observed and documented deaths off of California totaled 52 endangered whales. This is thought to represent only a small fraction of the total number of ship strikes taking place annually.

Ship strikes are a major threat to endangered whales globally.
| Credit: NOAA

The timing of the program also coincides with the season when ground-level ozone (smog) concentrations are typically high. 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 gasses (GHGs). These vessels account for nearly 200 tons of NOx per day emitted off the coast of California, which affects ozone levels onshore in many regions of the state. The areas of greater Los Angeles (including Ventura County), Santa Barbara County, and the San Francisco Bay do not meet the state and/or federal air quality standards for ozone.

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The program coincides with when ground-level ozone concentrations are typically high. | Credit: Bay Area Air Quality Management District

The VSR incentive program has expanded in scope and environmental benefits each year, including 2022, which marked the seventh year. Highlights of the 2022 program include: 


  • Of the 344,000 nautical miles of ocean transited by all the ships in the program, nearly 270,000 nautical miles were at 10 knots or less, which is equivalent to traversing the circumference of the Earth more than ten times.


  • Ships in the program transiting the southern California approximately 200-nautical-mile VSR zone traveled at 10 knots or less for 79% of the total miles traveled. Cooperation has steadily increased season after season, (in 2017, approximately 21% of the miles were traveled at 10 knots or less). This shows the increasing commitment by the participating companies over the years.

  • In the approximately 100-nautical-mile San Francisco Bay Area VSR zone - which was expanded in 2022, cooperation levels from the participating companies rose to 72%, up from 60% in 2021. 


  • Shipping companies that participated in the 2022 program reduced their air pollutant emissions by approximately 920 tons of NOx and 32,000 metric tons of regional GHGs. These numbers represent a 27% reduction in NOx and GHG pollution from the ships that participated in the program, as compared to baseline conditions. For comparison, the NOx reductions are equivalent to converting 580,000 passenger vehicles to zero emissions for a single year.


  • The transits of vessels participating in the VSR program posed approximately 44% less strike mortality risk to whales than if those vessels did not slow in cooperation with the program.


  • Ships in the Sapphire, Gold, and Blue Sky award tiers had sound levels that were 4.6 dB per transit lower when compared to 2021 baseline source levels. With a reduction in noise pollution, whales can likely communicate easier.


  • Incentives ranged from $2,500 to $20,000 per company in the Gold and Sapphire award tiers. 


Fourteen companies – OOCL, MSC, COSCO Shipping Line, CSL Group, Ocean Network Express (ONE), Maersk, “K” Line, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, Wan Hai, Evergreen Shipping, Swire Shipping, Hapag Lloyd, GALI, and Yang Ming – generously declined all or part of their financial incentive payments. Those funds will be used for additional public recognition efforts and reinvested in the program.

The 2023 program runs May 1 through December 15, 2023. This will be the biggest season yet for whale protection and clean air, with tanker operators invited to join. Expansion of the San Francisco VSR zone will extend the area by approximately 130 miles to include all of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. With this expansion, three new partners are joining the 2023 program: Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, and San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District. The 2023 program will not feature financial incentives, due to participants' feedback in support of the vessel speed reduction effort and public recognition.

The program has also implemented a Brand Ambassador Initiative, for brands interested in reducing the impact of their global supply chain. Shippers receive data on the reduced speed efforts of their shipping companies and the resulting decrease in air pollutants, greenhouse gasses, ship strikes and ocean noise. This information can then be used to inform consumers purchasing their products and help these brands make more sustainable shipping choices.


Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies  is a collaborative effort by Ventura County Air Pollution Control District; Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District; San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District; Monterey Bay Air Resources District; Bay Area Air Quality Management District; Channel Islands, Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries; The Volgenau Foundation; California Marine Sanctuary Foundation; National Marine Sanctuary Foundation; Greater Farallones Association; Environmental Defense Center; Point Blue Conservation Science; Starcrest Consulting; and Scripps Whale Acoustic Laboratory/Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

For more information, visit


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Shipping companies comment on participation in Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies:


OOCL: Paul Devine, President - OOCL (USA): “As a shipping company, we at OOCL consider that we have an obligation to respect and protect the ecosystem in which we operate, and that this most certainly includes marine life. We believe that all businesses should take responsibility for minimising their effects on the environment. OOCL is very proud to be playing our part in this valuable initiative in California, which not only results in greater safety for whales but also helps to reduce emissions.   Being awarded the top-level Sapphire status shows the seriousness of our commitment to sustainability issues, and we are honoured to have received this recognition. As a responsible corporate citizen, OOCL will continue to support the “Protecting Blue Whales & Blue Skies” program, as well as to take other proactive steps to embrace our long-term sustainability goals.”


Swire Shipping: Neil Carraher, Regional Manager - Polynesia: “At Swire Shipping, we understand that maintaining responsible stewardship of the biodiversity that we impact – and depend on – is important to maintaining a resilient natural environment. We are proud to support collaborative efforts across the industry to reduce the impact of commercial shipping on at-risk whales and are committed to continue to make a difference by participating actively in the Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies programme, and encouraging our vessels to slow down where possible when transiting through the areas key for the survival of the endangered southern resident killer whales.”


MSC: Stanley Kwiaton, Regional Manager – West coast, Port Operations "MSC is committed to safeguarding the marine environment and the wildlife that inhabits it. We have taken proactive measures to reduce our impact on endangered whales by voluntarily slowing down our vessels in sensitive areas. We are also collaborating with other stakeholders to raise awareness and promote best practices for whale protection. MSC believes that sustainability is not only a moral duty, but also a business opportunity, and we are constantly looking for innovative solutions to address the environmental challenges of our time.”


Yang Ming: Chief Marine Technology Officer, James Jeng: “Blue whales are among the most majestic beings on our planet, gracefully dwelling in the depths of the ocean and rarely seen close to shore. To safeguard these beautiful creatures, a reduction in vessel speed can make a significant difference. At Yang Ming, we deeply understand our critical role in global trade, but we also prioritize giving back to the ocean and mitigating our industry's impact on the environment. Therefore, it is a great honor for Yang Ming's fleet to partner with NOAA to preserve blue whales and improve air quality. Every step counts in making a positive change, and our dedication lies in ensuring a sustainable future for Mother Earth and its precious marine life.”

COSCO SHIPPING Lines: Gu Jun, President of Los Angeles: “Social responsibility has long been part of the essence of COSCO SHIPPING Lines' corporate culture. We believe that environmental protection is the prerequisite and a necessary condition for sustainable development. VSR program accord with our sustainability goal, and we will continuously do our best to participate in and promote green and low-carbon shipping.”


Wallenius Wilhelmsen: Roger Strevens, Vice President of Regulatory & Environmental Affairs: “Wallenius Wilhelmsen strongly supports the Blue Whales Blue Skies approach to protecting endangered whale species.  We were proud to achieve the top-level Sapphire award for the 2022 season and gladly donated the financial incentives earned back to the BWBS programme.”


NYK Ro-Ro: Jack Duesler, Regional Operation Manager: “NYK is so excited to achieve Sapphire status!  It has taken years of effort on so many vessels crew and our shoreside staff to make this possible.  We believe even though the standards have been raised for this coveted award, NYK’s has as well. Our goal remains to achieve a 100% participation and work closely with our partners.”


CSL: Emily Pointon, Director ESG: "At CSL, we acknowledge our vital role in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of marine life throughout our daily shipping operations. We firmly believe that protecting the environment is not only our responsibility but also a critical aspect of maintaining a sustainable business. Our active participation in the Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program is a testament to our dedication to reaching our environmental goals. We take great pride in being part of an initiative that has a proven track record in safeguarding endangered whales and reducing carbon emissions and underwater noise."

Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies "Whale Tail" awards. | Credit: Anastasia Kunz/NOAA

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