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Whales, Air Quality Targets of Plan to Slow Ships in Santa Barbara Channel

The county Air Pollution Control District is working to implement an incentive program for ocean-going vessels

Large ships traveling through the Santa Barbara Channel produce more than half of the entire county’s nitrogen oxide emissions and are a threat to the whales that frequent the area, so the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District is working with other agencies to implement a marine vessel speed-reduction program like the one used by the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Representatives from the county, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Defense Center gave a presentation to the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday with an update on the initiative and efforts to get funding from the state.

The partnership is looking at the “vexing problem” of heavy shipping traffic in the channel and along the California coast, which has big impacts to local air quality, climate control implications and a threat to whales, said Brian Shafritz, Air Pollution Control District manager.

The channel’s shipping lanes are about 12 miles off the coast and span 110 miles in the county, which makes the channel a “congregation point” for trans-Pacific ships from Asia that come to deliver cargo at the ports.

Large container ships have engines “like mini power plants; they spew out tons of pollutants,” he said.

Over the 110-mile span, “one ship crossing from north to south there on the one lane is equivalent to 40,000 cars of ozone-forming pollutants, just one transit.”

The City Council and many other agencies have already sent letters of support for the project.

Assembly Bill 32 funds could pay for an incentive program to get ships to slow down to 12 knots, which could reduce greenhouse gas, other pollutants and the lethality of ship strikes on whales, the Air Pollution Control District says.

The district submitted a vessel speed-reduction incentive initiative to the California Air Resources Board last March.

The Long Beach and LA ports’ speed-reduction incentive programs have participation rates over 90 percent, and the county wants to develop its own incentive structure over a pilot program period.

Slowing ships to 12 knots will reduce shipping greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent and nitrogen oxides air pollution by 56 percent, the initiative states.

The ports spend about $2 million per year on their programs, and this partnership estimates that it would cost $5 million to expand it to the Santa Barbara Channel.

Ship trips through the channel peaked at more than 7,000 annually in 2006 and 2007, dipping ever since with the recession and the state’s lower-sulfur fuel rule for the area mandated in 2009.

The rule was meant to reduce emissions of diesel particulate, but the majority of ships started going around the islands to avoid the regulation, according to NOAA.

The channel has the largest seasonal population of blue whales in the world, and having shipping lanes is “like having a highway running through your kitchen,” said Kristi Birney, a marine conservation analyst with EDC.

Incentivizing ships to slow down to 12 knots through the channel — as the ports have — would reduce the probability of fatal collisions, and the benefits will be easily tracked through air pollution and the marine sanctuary’s existing system of tracking cargo ship speeds and routes.

The groups want a voluntary incentive program, not regulations, said Sean Hastings, the resource protection coordinator for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

He reminded the City Council that NOAA is within the Department of Commerce, so it definitely doesn’t want to stop shipping.

They believe there’s a way to work with the shipping industry to achieve a cleaner climate, public health benefits and smaller likelihood of whale fatalities, he said.

According to the Air Pollution Control District, marine shipping makes up 54 percent of the county’s nitrogen oxides sources, and by 2030, it expects that to increase to 72 percent.

Every ship emits radio signals so NOAA antennae can track who they are, what they’re carrying, where they’re going, and how fast, Hastings said.

He tried to work with the shipping industry to slow down for the sake of whales alone, but they had “zero cooperation” in the past. An incentive program would be between a friendly ask and a regulation, he said.

Moving the ships entirely isn’t a viable option, but slowing them down is, he said. Cruise ships, which are visiting Santa Barbara with more frequency now, also have been known to hit whales.

An “unusual mortality event” was declared in 2007 for blue whales after five carcasses were discovered between Santa Cruz Island and San Diego, all with injuries consistent with ship strikes, according to a 2011 paper, “Reducing the Threat of Ship Strikes on Large Cetaceans in the Santa Barbara Channel Region and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.”

Historically, three was the most blue whale fatalities in this region for a single year.

Scientists aren’t sure why the whales aren’t getting out of the way of ships, even though there are “dozens of us working on this issue,” Hastings said. “It’s something we simply don’t understand.”

This initiative’s partnership includes the Air Pollution Control District, NOAA, the county and city of Santa Barbara, the EDC, Community Environmental Council, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and shipping representatives Marine Exchange and PMSA.

The Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are also partners in the effort.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

  Marine Vessel Speed Reduction Initiative Fact Sheet by Giana Magnoli

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