Shipping companies receive awards for slowing to protect blue whales, blue skies

Awardees comment on vessel speed reduction program

The Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program recognized 16 global shipping companies for reducing speeds to 10 knots or less in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Southern California Region in 2020.

The voluntary program is an initiative to cut air pollution, protect endangered whales, and reduce underwater noise. The 2020 program ran from May 15, 2020 through November 15, 2020. The companies received recognition in the form of trophies, plaques, or certificates and financial incentive payments according to their levels of achievement.


Three award tiers recognize participating companies based on the percent of distance their fleet traveled through the Vessel Speed Reduction (VSR) zones at speeds of 10 knots or less. Credit was only given if the average speed of a transit through an entire VSR Zone did not exceed 12 knots.

MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, Yang Ming, and MOL ACE notably achieved the Sapphire tier in the large company category (greater than 30 transits) by slowing down more than 800 transits, combined. Swire Shipping achieved the Sapphire tier in the small company category (less than 30 transits). For their outstanding commitment, all five of these companies earned the Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies Whale Tail award.

“Biodiversity is an integral part of our sustainability strategy,” said Wolfram Guntermann, Director Regulatory Affairs & Sustainability at Hapag-Lloyd, calling the program a “remarkable initiative.”

Seven companies – COSCO Shipping Lines, Evergreen, GALI, “K” Line, Maersk, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, and Swire Shipping – generously declined their financial incentive payment. Those funds will be reinvested in the 2021 program.

“In choosing to return the financial incentive, we hope to be able to contribute to the ongoing success of the program,” said Mugurel Calin, Swire Shipping’s Operations Manager for North America. “Collectively, we can make a difference, firstly as a company, and secondly, as a member of the community that we live and work in.”

A humpback whale breaches in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California. Photo: Robert Schwemmer, NOAA

Blue whales, blue skies

Shipping companies receive recognition and financial awards based on the percent of distance traveled by their vessels through the VSR zones at 10 knots or less and with an average speed of 12 knots or less. (The average baseline speed of participating ships prior to the incentive program is approximately 15 knots in the VSR zones.)

The 10-knot target follows the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) and United States Coast Guard request for all vessels (300 gross tons or larger) to slow down during the months of peak blue, humpback, and fin whale abundance to protect these endangered whales from deadly ship strikes.

Ship strikes continue to be a global threat to all large whale populations. Reducing fatal ship strikes is a major priority of NOAA’s, especially in NOAA’s West Coast national marine sanctuaries. Documented deaths totaled 48 endangered whales from 2007-2019, and likely represent only a small fraction of the total number of ship strikes annually.

One of Yang Ming’s priorities has been promoting the sustainability of the ocean and coastal environments,” said Leo Chiang, Vice President of Marine Operations. “That is why we take immense pride in being a volunteer in the Blue Whales and Blue Skies Program.”

Air quality

The timing of the program also coincides with the season when ground-level ozone (smog) concentrations are typically high and potentially harmful to human health. 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 gases. These vessels account for more than 200 tons of NOx per day emitted off the coast of California, which affects ozone levels onshore in many regions of the state.

The San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California Region (including Santa Barbara County, Ventura County, the greater Los Angeles area, and San Diego County) do not meet the state and/or federal air quality standards for ozone.

“We see the oceans as our home and are both dependent on and committed to fostering their health and resilience,” said Stanley Kwiaton, MSC’s General Manager of Port Operations – West Coast. “We are delighted to be able to set an industry example by voluntarily reducing vessel speeds in areas where endangered whale species regularly feed, helping us improve the way we do business.”

The VSR incentive program has expanded in scope and environmental benefits each year, including 2020, which marked the sixth year. The 2021 program began on May 15, 2021 and runs through November 15, 2021. Eighteen companies are currently enrolled in the 2021 program.

The Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program is a collaborative effort by Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District; Ventura County Air Pollution Control District; Bay Area Air Quality Management District; Channel Islands, Greater Farallones, and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries; The Volgenau Foundation; California Marine Sanctuary Foundation; Greater Farallones Association; National Marine Sanctuary Foundation; and Environmental Defense Center.

For more information about the program, visit or

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