Thursday, May 24 , 2018, 2:05 pm | Overcast 62º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: ‘Slow Down Santa Barbara’ for Whales and Cleaner Air

I appreciate the little road signs that read, “Slow Down Santa Barbara.” They’re a good reminder that we aspire to live not in a frenetic big city but an ever-so-slightly quaint smallish one. Slowing down drivers is for safety, but side benefits are reduced stress levels and an improved quality of life.

The same arguments apply offshore, to ships in the Santa Barbara Channel making their way to the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. The Southern California Bight, that huge triangle of ocean south of Point Conception and west of San Diego, is home or feasting grounds to one-third of the world’s marine mammal species. It is also one of the world’s busiest shipping channels, with 5,000 ships annually traversing a mile-wide southbound lane, mile-wide northbound lane with a mile-wide buffer between.

The busy channel gives us access to a vast variety of global goods at low prices. But there are costs that don’t show up in the prices of those goods. Two in particular are whale-ship collisions and ozone pollution.

Now, an experimental incentive program is looking to Slow Down Santa Barbara for ships.

The Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the Environmental Defense Center designed and implemented the program to pay global shippers a small bonus when they cut their speed to a maximum of 12 knots. It began in July and runs through October, with six participants from across the globe: COSCO, Hapag Lloyd, K Line, Maersk Line, Matson and United Arab Shipping Co.

The goal is to address both collision and pollution issues. In Santa Barbara County, 50 percent of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides are emitted by passing ships.

“Reducing ship speeds to 12 knots or less reduces emissions of smog-forming air pollutants that harm our health,” according to Dave Van Mullem, director of the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District.

The program is modeled on a successful one in the Long Beach and L.A. harbors.

Whale strikes by ships happen every year. The summer of 2007 witnessed a record five known ship strikes of blue whales. The most recent likely victim was a fin whale that washed up the beach at Port Hueneme in the middle of August. When ships’ travel speed is reduced, whales have more time to maneuver out of the way.

The ships’ typical speeds are 14 to 18 knots. They’ll receive $2,500 every time their ship passes through the channel at a speed of 12 knots or less. Though the bonus doesn’t cover their extra costs, the initial response from the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association has been very positive. The nonprofit coalition has funding for 16 transits, but they received more than 25 ship transit requests to be included in the trial.

“The PMSA is committed to finding viable science-based solutions to both air quality and whale protection issues,” said TL Garrett, vice president of the association.

Santa Barbara Foundation community investment officer Sharyn Main agrees: "Nobody wants to hit these fabulous animals," she said.

The next time you spot one of those green and yellow Slow Down Santa Barbara signs, think health, think safety and think of our large marine mammal friends. They’re likely navigating even busier ocean traffic than whatever you’re facing on the mainland.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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