Ships passing through the Santa Barbara Channel are being asked to slow down several knots to spare the county a significant amount of air pollution and whale fatalities, according to advocates of a trial program that launched Monday.
Many shipping companies pass through the Santa Barbara Channel along their Pacific Rim route on the way to Los Angeles and Long Beach, and are responsible for more than 50 percent of Santa Barbara County's ozone-forming gases, according to officials.
"I can't even describe how huge the engines are that run those ships," said Dave Van Mullem, director of the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District.
The district doesn't have jurisdiction past state waters, so the ACPD has been mulling over a solution to the pollution problems from ships passing through.
It models itself after similar programs in place at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Six global shipping companies — COSCO, Hapag Lloyd, K Line, Maersk Line, Matson, and United Arab Shipping Company — are participating and have said that ships in their fleets will reduce speeds to 12 knots or less between Point Conception and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Those companies will receive $2,500 for each trip through the Santa Barbara Channel.
Ships moving through the channel typically move at 14 to 18 knots, and even a reduction by just two knots will have a significant impact, according to Kristi Birney of the Environmental Defense Center. She said the risk drops exponentially that a whale will be fatally injured if struck by a vessel going 12 knots an hour, which is about 13.8 miles per hour.
"It cuts the chance of a lethal collision by about 80 percent," she said.
The issue came to a head in 2005, when there were five confirmed ship strikes with whales in the Santa Barbara Channel during a three-week period.
"That really raised the alarm," Birney said, adding that just last week, a fin whale was found dead off of Port Hueneme and was likely struck by a ship.
Though there are about three to five strikes confirmed each year, Birney said many more are likely to go undetected.
Blue whales are the primary focus, she said, though humpback, gray and killer whales also pass through the Channel and could be vulnerable to strikes.
The program received more applicants than it could fund, so Birney said she hopes the program will be able to expand in the future.
The funding for the program is coming from the ACPD as well as a grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation.
The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation will help distribute those funds, which will be provided upon verification of the ships’ speeds through the Channel.
Chris Mobley, superintendent for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, said the group was "extremely pleased" with the positive response from shipping companies.