A program being launched off the California coast this summer will tackle two environmental problems posed by thousands of cargo ships that ferry goods to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach each year: Not only are the hulking vessels major sources of air pollution, their shipping lanes overlap with a prime feeding area for migrating blue whales off Santa Barbara.
The voluntary initiative, developed by federal wildlife officials, environmentalists and air quality regulators, will pay shipping companies to slow down ocean vessels as they travel through the Santa Barbara Channel to reduce emissions and avoid colliding with blue whales.
The speed reduction incentive program is the latest effort to address long-standing concerns over ship strikes that have killed dozens of endangered blue, humpback and fin whales over the last 10 to 15 years and threaten their recovery.
Shippers will be paid $2,500 for each trip completed at 12 knots or slower through a 130-mile stretch from Point Conception to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. Normal cruising speed is between 14 and 18 knots.
Lower speeds are expected to reduce the risk of ship strikes that are fatal to whales and could give the giant marine mammals more time to swim away from approaching ships. When ships travel more slowly, there's an added benefit: Their enormous engines emit less air pollution.
"It's a very simple but clever solution: When you slow ships down you provide whale conservation and cleaner air for us to breathe here on shore,” said Kristi Birney, marine conservation analyst for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, one of the backers of the initiative.
Six global shipping companies are participating in the trial program, which will pay for 16 low-speed trips through the Santa Barbara Channel from July through the end of October.
The season coincides with the peak of blue whale feeding in the channel and the time of year when Southern California sees its highest concentrations of ozone, the lung-damaging ingredient of smog.
Ships are known to collide with and kill several whales each year off California, according to federal wildlife officials. But the actual number of ship strikes is probably much higher because many of the incidents go unnoticed or unreported and the carcasses drift away or sink into the ocean.
Collisions between ships and whales became a high-profile issue in 2007, when at least four blue whales were killed by such strikes in the Santa Barbara Channel in just a few weeks. That prompted federal wildlife authorities to start issuing notices asking large vessels to slow down when whales are spotted the area.
Local air quality officials say they have long sought similar curbs on pollution from offshore vessels, which are responsible for more than half of the emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxides in Santa Barbara County.
A recent study by UC Riverside scientists found emissions of nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide dropped by more than 50% when ocean-going vessels reduced their speed to 12 knots.
The incentives, funded by the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District and the Santa Barbara Foundation and administered by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, are intended to offset some of the cost of slowing down through the channel. Doing so adds about four hours to a typical container ship's trans-Pacific voyage.
Still, the payments "don't really come close to covering the additional cost or risk that they're incurring by slowing down" said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., an industry group. "They're doing it because they're trying to exhaust all measures possible to both enhance protection of whales in the Santa Barbara Channel and to improve air quality."
A ship-tracking system will use data from transponders on the ships to verify that they reduced their speeds through the channel before they receive payments.
One concern, raised by air quality officials and the shipping industry, is that vessels could speed up somewhere else along their routes to make up time before slowing down near Santa Barbara.
"That could easily wipe out the air quality benefits," Garrett said.
Backers of the program said they would use the trial period to evaluate the effects of speed reduction on air quality and whales and to test the shipping industry's willingness to participate before embarking on a larger-scale plan.
In 2011, the Environmental Defense Center and other advocacy groups unsuccessfully petitioned the Obama administration to require shippers to reduce their speed through California's four national marine sanctuaries to protect whales.
Last year the U.S. Coast Guard moved the southbound shipping lane through the Santa Barbara Channel a mile closer to shore avoid the area with the highest concentration of whales. But even with the new configuration, experts say, whales remain at risk of being hit by ships.