Six Major Shipping Companies Will Slow Down To Protect Whales, Air Quality

CREDIT: AP/ John Calambokidis

A blue whale is shown near a cargo ship in the Santa Barbara Channel off the California coast. A satellite study of blue whale movements shows the endangered creatures cluster for long periods in busy shipping lanes off the California coast, putting them at risk for collisions with large vessels.

Six international shipping companies agreed on Monday to slow their ships down along the Santa Barbara coastline as part of a coordinated effort to reduce air pollution and protect endangered whales. The shipping companies will reduce the speed at which some of their ships travel along this strip of ocean nestled between the coast and the Channel Islands north of Los Angeles from about 21 miles per hour to less than 14 miles per hour as part of a trial program. The participating companies — COSCO, Hapag Lloyd, K Line, Maersk Line, Matson, and United Arab Shipping Company — will receive $2,500 per slowed-down transit through the Channel and there is currently enough funding for 16 transits. However the coalition received more than 30 ship transit requests to be included in the trial and is seeking additional funding to expand.

“This is a pilot program meant to show that ships slow down when given the incentive,” Shiva Polefka, a researcher for the Center For American Progress’s Ocean Program told ThinkProgress. “Once the data is in hand, higher level authorities with more funding may get involved to broaden coverage. What makes this program noteworthy is that local environmental advocates and managers got international companies to come to the table and start implementing a simple solution that reduces air pollution and protects marine wildlife.”

The program is part of a broader long-term effort to reduce whale fatalities associated with shipping incidents. Shifting the path of popular shipping lanes along the West Coast could also lower the risk to marine mammals that gather to feed in along the routes.

“One of the largest threats to whales right now is ship strikes,” said Sean Hastings, resource protection coordinator for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. “The slower ships go, the better chance whales have of surviving strikes, and presumably they also have more time to get out of the way.”

Similar efforts to the one in Santa Barbara at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have resulted in 90 percent of shipping companies eventually participating. Ship strikes threaten the endangered baleen whales that feed on krill in the shipping lanes, including blue whales and humpback whales traveling in and around the lanes during seasonal migrations. The test goes through the end of October and includes the most common time for whales to pass through the channel. Several thousands ships and a couple hundred blue whales pass through the Channel every year.

A recent comprehensive study using 15 years of data found that blue whales’ favorite feeding areas along the West Coast are bisected by heavily used shipping lanes. Led by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, the researchers determined that the biggest overlap between blue whales and ships occurs from July to October near the western Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. The findings went against the traditionally held belief that shifting shipping lanes wouldn’t help whales much because they are so widely dispersed.


Shading in the figure represents the number of individual home range and core areas of use that are overlapping in that area. Number of overlapping areas was used as a metric to characterize how much an area was used by the tagged whales. Tags were deployed off California from 1998–2008.

Shading in the figure represents the number of individual home range and core areas of use that are overlapping in that area. Number of overlapping areas was used as a metric to characterize how much an area was used by the tagged whales. Tags were deployed off California from 1998–2008.


About 2,500 of the estimated 10,000 blue whales in existence gather along the West Coast as they migrate from Alaska down toward the equator. The blue whale is the largest creature ever to inhabit the earth and can reach 100 feet in length. The whales need to maximize their food supply in the late summer before heading south for the winter. The container ships can reach up to nearly 1,000 feet in length.

“It’s an unhappy coincidence,” Ladd Irvine, a marine mammal ecologist at Oregon State University who led the study, told the Los Angeles Times. “The blue whales need to find the densest food supply. There’s a limited number of those dense places, and it seems as though two of the main regular spots are crossed by the shipping lanes.”

Daniel Palacios, a co-author on the study, said that it’s not often that research results are so applicable to a policy decision. “You will eliminate many of the ship strikes on blue whales by moving the shipping lanes south of the northern Channel Islands,” he said.

Two years ago the International Maritime Organization agreed to divert southbound ships over a mile away from several of the Channel Islands. This change led to an increase in blue whale sightings and more currents full of krill for the whales to eat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning a further review of shipping lanes in the area, however for the time being slowing ship speeds is the immediate action. This will also have implications for greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution because reducing ship speeds will significantly reduce emissions of smog-forming air pollutants. Ship emissions off the coast of Santa Barbara County account for over 50 percent of smog-forming nitrogen oxides in the county. A 2012 study found that when ships slowed from regular cruising speeds to 12 knots, or nearly 14 miles per hour, their greenhouse gas emissions dropped by around half.

Polefka said that one potential outcome is that the California Air Resources Board could allocate emissions credits to slower ships that emit fewer GHGs as part of the state’s cap-and-trade program.