Officials say even small reductions in the speed of container ships traveling through the Santa Barbara Channel dramatically reduce the likelihood of a fatal collision with blue, humpback, gray and fin whales. (John Calambokidis photo)

While large container ships are indispensable to international trade, they’re not so kind to whales and the atmosphere.

Two years into a voluntary program that provides incentives for these ships to slow their speeds through the Santa Barbara Channel, environmental officials and wildlife advocates say they are seeing progress.

“In 2014, for the 27 transits that qualified and received the incentive and slowed down, we got more than 12 tons of reduction in (nitrogen oxides),” said Mary Byrd, community program supervisor at the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District.

“That’s a pretty significant reduction for a program this size.”

The greenhouse gases and pollutants emitted by these vessels account for more than half of the smog-generating NOx emissions in the county, according to the program’s partners.

By comparison, an average passenger car with average use emits a little over 18 pounds of NOx a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even small reductions in speed, the program’s partners say, also dramatically reduce the likelihood of a fatal collision with the channel’s blue, humpback, gray and fin whales, some of which are endangered.

On Tuesday, the 2016 Vessel Speed Reduction incentive program announced that it has 10 shipping companies committed to reducing their speeds to 12 knots along the coasts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Some of the participating transits go around the outside of the Channel Islands as well as through the channel.

“We have received a whole bunch of applications — lots and lots of interest from the shipping industry,” Byrd told Noozhawk.

The 2-year-old program, which runs from July 1 to Nov. 15 this year, is a collaboration between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties’ air pollution control districts, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the Volgenau Foundation and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary supervised by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s a really incredible partnership,” Byrd said. “It’s not often that you can find this kind of common ground: reducing air pollution and protecting whales.”

Roughly 2,500 large container ships head to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach through the channel each year, according to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Sanctuary officials say the ships’ average speed in the channel is about 14 knots. The sanctuary estimates that one to three whales are killed in the channel by ships each year, although officials say that difficult-to-estimate number could be higher.

Ships reducing their speeds to 12 knots, or just under 14 mph, can cut their emissions by 50 percent, according to the sanctuary, citing a 2012 study from UC Riverside.

The international array of 2016 participants include CMA CGM, Evergreen, Hamburg Sud, Hapag Lloyd, Holland, K Line, Maersk, MOL, NYK Line and Yang Ming.

The incentives range from $1,500 to $2,500 for a transit, with a bonus incentive of up to $1,250 for speeds reduced to 10 knots or less.

The usual speed of participating ships before the program must be 14 knots or faster in order to quality, and they must already be participating in the vessel speed reduction programs of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Byrd said.

A midprogram assessment for the months of July and August, she said, found that 75 percent of participants ended up reducing their speeds to 12 knots, while four reduced their speeds to 10 knots.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.