California expands its voluntary vessel speed reduction programme

The US state of California is continuing to encourage operators to keep the speed of their vessels to a speed of 10 knots or less when sailing along Tables the state’s coast. For 2023 the vessel speed reduction zones have become larger and the season longer.

California’s Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies programme is a voluntary vessel speed reduction (VSR) incentivization off the state’s coast. It establishes seasonal slow speed zones that coincide with the whales’ prime feeding and migration season, encouraging vessels to transit these zones at speeds of 10 knots or less, thus reducing fatal ship strikes and underwater noise. Its the timing corresponds with the season when ground-level ozone concentrations in the region tends to be high.

Since its inception in 2014 the program is claimed to have achieved 792,359 slow speed miles (nm), a reduction of more than 3,200 tons of NOx and 108,00 metric tons of regional GHGs, and an estimated 44% decreased risk of whale strikes during the prime migration season in the affected coastal areas.

It was also observed in 2022 that noise levels produced by participating vessels were 4.6 dB lower per transit when compared to baseline source levels in 2021.

Running from May 1st through to December 15th, the 2023 programme is the longest season yet.

However, there will no longer be any financial awards. Instead, California is offering the rather more nebulous “positive press and public relations” incentives.

The requirement is for the average speed of a transit throughout the entire VSR zones to not exceed 12 knots.

There has also been an expansion of the northern VSR zone throughout the Monterey Bay region, and the southern California VSR zone expansion to include recent IMO modifications to the Santa Barbara Channel Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) and Area To Be Avoided (ATBA).

This year tanker operators were also invited to join the programme. Therefore any company that operates container, car carrier, bulk cargo, or tanker vessels that pass through the VSR zones is eligible to enrol.

California is looking to expand the programme even further. Amendments to the California Resource Code as per Assembly Bill 953 propose to “implement a statewide voluntary vessel speed reduction and sustainable shipping programme for the California coast in order to reduce air pollution, the risk of fatal vessel strikes on whales, and harmful underwater acoustic impacts”.