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May 11th, 2022

Global shipping companies reduced speeds off California coast to protect blue whales and blue skies 

Program continues to expand and achieve greater environmental benefits


The partners in an initiative to cut air pollution and protect endangered whales announced results from the 2021 “Protecting Blue Whales & Blue Skies” program. Eighteen 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 15, 2021 through November 15, 2021

Shipping companies receive 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 10-knot target complements the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) and U.S. Coast Guard’s requests for all vessels (300 gross tons or larger) to reduce speeds during the months of peak 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

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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. Observed and documented deaths totaled 51 endangered whales from 2007-2021, and likely represent only a small fraction of the total number of ship strikes taking place annually.

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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

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Three award tiers recognize participating companies based on the percent of distance their fleet traveled through the VSR zones at speeds of 10 knots or less. 

For the fourth year in a row, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) notably achieved the Sapphire tier in the large fleet category and demonstrated that planning enables ships to reduce speeds in VSR zones without disrupting operations. In 2021, MSC traveled more than 23,000 nautical miles at 10 knots or less. Swire Shipping achieved the Sapphire tier in the small fleet category with 1,500 nautical miles at 10 knots or less. For their outstanding commitment, these two companies earned the Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies Whale Tail award. 

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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. 

Clean air is essential for everyone. Bay Area Air Quality Management District

The three award tiers are Sapphire (85-100% of fleet total distance in VSR zones traveled at 10 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 awarded a financial incentive.

The VSR incentive program has expanded in scope and environmental benefits each year, including 2021, which marked the seventh year. Highlights of the 2021 program include:

  • Of the nearly 280,000 nautical miles of ocean transited by all the ships in the program, nearly 180,000 nautical miles were at 10 knots or less, which is equivalent to traversing the circumference of the Earth more than eight times.


  • Ships in the program transiting the southern California approximately 200-nautical-mile VSR zone traveled at 10 knots or less for 66% of the total miles traveled. This number 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 50-nautical-mile San Francisco Bay Area VSR zone, cooperation levels from the participating companies remained fairly consistent compared to previous years with a combined value of 60%. 


  • Shipping companies that participated in the 2021 program reduced their air pollutant emissions by 650 tons of NOx and 22,201 metric tons of regional GHGs. (For example, this equates to the GHG emissions from 4,784 passenger vehicles driven for one year, or the amount of GHGs produced by charging more than 2.7 billion smartphones.) These numbers represent approximately a 25% reduction in NOx pollution from the ships that participated in the program, as compared to baseline conditions.


  • The transits of vessels participating in the VSR program posed approximately 50% 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 5 dB per transit lower when compared to baseline source levels. With a reduction in noise pollution whales can likely communicate easier.


  • Incentives ranged from $5,000 to $50,000 per company in the Gold and Sapphire award tiers. 

Six companies – COSCO Shipping Lines, Maersk, Ocean Network Express (ONE), Wallenius Wilhelmsen, Yang Ming, and Swire Shipping – generously declined their financial incentive payment. Those funds will be used for additional public recognition efforts and reinvested in the program.

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District; Bay Area Air Quality Management District; Channel Islands, Cordell Bank, and Greater Farallones 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.

Statements from Program Partners

Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, Aeron Arlin Genet, Air Pollution Control Officer:  “We applaud the participating shipping companies, many of which have returned to this program year after year. Their voluntary efforts to reduce speeds have again translated to significant benefits for air quality and endangered whales. This program continues to show what great things can happen when local, state, national, and international organizations collaborate.”

Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, Ali R. Ghasemi, Interim Air Pollution Control Officer: “Ocean-going vessels contribute over 40 percent of the nitrogen oxides emitted in Ventura County and the associated outer continental shelf area.  This voluntary, incentive-based program is a critical component of our strategy to reduce ozone-forming emissions and meet the health-based air quality standards.  The ozone concentrations in Ventura County were the lowest on record in 2021 and the Vessel Speed Reduction Program was believed to be a major contributor to this success.”

Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Veronica Eady, Senior Deputy Executive Officer of Policy and Equity:  "Both air quality and endangered whales benefit from the slower movement of ships through critical coastal zones. The Vessel Speed Reduction Program is a great example of a successful collaboration of public, private and non-profit organizations coming together to advance whale conservation and promote cleaner air off our coast."

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Chris Mobley, Superintendent: “The National Marine Sanctuaries Act guides us to create models of, and incentives for, ways to conserve and manage, including innovative management techniques. This innovative incentive-based vessel speed reduction program, in collaboration with county air management districts, the shipping industry, other agencies, and NGOs, serves as a model for enhancing ocean and human health while promoting a sustainable, blue economy."   

Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries, Maria Brown, Superintendent: “The survival of these endangered whales is up to all of us. The success of this program hinges on the shipping industry’s willingness to advance whale conservation and promote cleaner air, while conducting commerce, in partnership with agencies and nonprofits. By working together, we can ensure blue, fin, and humpback whales continue to live on this planet.”

The Environmental Defense Center, Kristen Hislop, Marine Conservation Program Director: “What started as an innovative pilot project that brought together environmental groups, the shipping industry, as well as federal and local governments in an effort to protect endangered whales and improve air quality has proven incredibly effective at accomplishing both goals. The Environmental Defense Center will continue our work to ensure these efforts are rewarded by legislation that would provide this vital program with the resources it needs to thrive long into the future.”


The Volgenau Foundation, Lisa Volgenau, Vice President and Board Director: “We are proud to be a part of this partnership that helps improve air quality and protect marine species, particularly endangered whales. Each year, the increasing participation of shipping companies contributes to the goal of a sustainable outcome. We especially commend those companies that declined their incentives, which truly shows their support of conservation along the coast. We hope that many more will follow their commitment to significantly improve ocean and human health for future generations.”


California Marine Sanctuary Foundation, Robert Mazurek, Executive Director:  “It is very exciting to be part of a project where everyone can see such clear benefits.  This is a win for clean air, a win for endangered and threatened whales, and a win for our collaborative effort, where government, industry, philanthropists, and nonprofits understand that it takes all of us to achieve significant conservation success.”

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The 2022 program runs May 1 through December 15, 2022.

For more information, visit

The program is a collaborative effort by Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District; Ventura County Air Pollution Control

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