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Blue Whales Blue Skies program in its 8th year of operation on the California coast

The program continues to expand and achieve greater environmental benefits

SANTA BARBARA— On May 11 the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it would continue the voluntary program known as “Blue Whales and Blue Skies” for the eighth year.

Global shipping companies will continue to be incentivized if they agree to reduce their transit speeds when they are traveling through coastal areas of California to reduce whale strikes and improve air quality. For nearly a decade, as shipping of cargo along the coast has increased, ship strikes have become a major threat to whales globally and locally. Not only does this increased activity effect the whale population from rebounding from decades of whaling, but air quality up and down our coast has declined.

“The National Marine Sanctuaries Act (under NOAA) guides us to create models of, and incentives for ways to conserve and manage, including innovative management techniques,” said Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent, Chris Mobley. “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.”


Blue Whales and Blue Skies


Many species of whales, including the endangered blue, fin, and humpback whales come to feed in California’s nutrient rich coastal waters, typically in the late spring and fall months each year. Reducing the risk of ship strikes is a major priority for NOAA, including NOAA’s West Coast national marine sanctuaries.


“NOAA 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,” said Resource Protection Coordinator Sean Hastings for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.


How the Program Works

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 with an average speed of 12 knots or less. The 10-knot target complements the NOAA’s and U.S. Coast Guard’s requests for all vessels (300 gross tons or larger) to reduce speeds during the months of whale abundance to these whales from ship strikes.


“Ocean-going vessels contribute over 40 percent of the nitrogen oxides emitted in Ventura County and the associated outer continental shelf area,” said Interim Air Pollution Control Officer Ali R. Ghasemi for Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.


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.


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 2021 and 2022 programs cover more time than previous programs because whales have been showing up earlier and staying longer in their feeding areas along the coast,” said Hasting. “And, by harmonizing the start/end dates between southern California and San Francisco Bay area it simplifies the program for the shipping industry and any schedule adjustments they must make to cooperate with the program.”


Program Results

Results from the 2021 program, which ran May 15- Nov 15, 2021, show the transits of vessels participating in the VSR program helped reduce by 50 percent less strike mortality risk to whales than if those vessels did not slow in cooperation with the program.


Blue Whales and Blue Skies offer three award tiers to recognize participating companies based on the percent of distance their fleet traveled through the VSR zones at speeds of 10 knots or less. The three award tiers are Sapphire (85-100 percent of fleet total distance in VSR zones traveled at 10 knots or less), Gold (60-84 percent), and Blue Sky (35-59 percent). 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.


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.


Speed reduction reduces noise in the ocean and 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.


For more information on the 2022 program, visit

More information on area designations see here:

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