Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies

     From his dockside vantage point on San Francisco Bay, Otis Redding described it well: “… I'll be sittin' when the evenin' comes, watching the ships roll in; and then I watch 'em roll away again …” The constant ebb and flow of ship traffic entering and leaving San Francisco’s Golden Gate is like blood pulsing through veins; and indeed, the movement of goods and products through our coastal waters is part of the lifeblood of our economy. Huge commercial vessels, gliding along the horizon and silhouetted against the western sky, travel from the great ports of Seattle and Long Beach, or from across the Pacific, to the bay and river ports of Oakland, San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento. Large ships of 300+ gross tons make up to 9,000 transits through the Golden Gate annually.

     The Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank, Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries, lying athwart the coastal waters of San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, encompass the Traffic Separation Scheme directing ship traffic into these ports of call. But in this vital and vibrant forum of international commerce, collisions with whales occur; air and water pollution results from burning fuel oil; the threat of spills is ever-present. These same waters are feeding grounds for endangered blue, humpback and fin whales. Ship strikes are inevitable.


     Ship strike fatalities among whales are a growing concern worldwide. Between 1988 and 2016, NOAA Fisheries documented 138 large whale ship strikes along the California coast. Some were killed outright; others injured and possibly killed, but whose final fate is unknown. The actual number for blue whales could be 10 to 15 times higher, because blues sink when they die, and often remain undetected.

     Protecting endangered species and other wildlife is a priority for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its system of national marine sanctuaries. In June 2017 the North-central coast sanctuaries joined a new initiative to reduce the speed of large vessels. The Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies program is the latest of several actions. Although sanctuaries have called for voluntary large vessel slowdowns since 2012 during feeding season, this latest initiative offers monetary incentives for vessels that reduce their speeds in critical zones. Over $185,000 in funding is planned to incentivize slow-speed transits for 2017.

     Ships are so massive, that once underway, it is not possible to stop, slow or turn them quickly enough to avoid a collision when a whale is sighted ahead. At cruising speeds of 14-18 kts collisions are often fatal, but studies show that lower speed accidents, e.g., at 10 knots (11.5mph), are more likely to be survivable. Another benefit of the speed reduction program is that cruising at lower speeds is more fuel efficient and less polluting.

     The Blue Whales and Blue Skies program is effective from July 1 through November 15, when these whales are abundant. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the north-central California national marine sanctuaries join founding partners Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, Volgenau Foundation, and NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in this effort. In 2016 in the Santa Barbara Channel region, it succeeded in slowing 50 ship transits to 12 knots or under, reducing more than 25 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) and over 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Ten global shipping companies participated in the 2016 Santa Barbara Program: CMA CGM, Evergreen, Hamburg Sud, Hapag Lloyd, Holland, K Line, Maersk, MOL, NYK Line, and Yang Ming. In 2016, 90% of these companies indicated interest in also participating in a future Bay Area program. This expansion to North-central California holds great promise!

     Threats to our marine wildlife and habitats are many, but some, at least, are manageable. Blue Whales-Blue Skies is a public-private collaboration that may prove one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases while benefiting the marine environment, air quality, and the local economy. Your national marine sanctuaries are continuously working to protect our living resources, one threat at a time. 


For more information, and to view a new film on the collaborative effort, visit Additional information can be found at 

The photo (below) is of a blue whale, killed by a ship strike in June, 2017.

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Words On Wellness