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Missed chances in preventing ships from killing mighty mammals

Sri Lanka missed a November 27 deadline to submit a proposal to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that would save endangered whales off the south coast from being killed or maimed in the busy shipping lane offshore that is also a feeding ground for the giants. Known as “ship strikes”, these accidents are a growing concern in the seas off the southern coast where one of the world’s largest shipping route cuts across rich blue whale habitat. Some marine biologists propose shifting this shipping lane 15 nautical miles southwards as a solution but shifting a shipping route is difficult and needs much coordinated international action – and Sri Lanka is anxious not to damage its business interests.

A country wanting an international shipping lane moved had to apply to the IMO for permission by November 27 for consideration next year but lobbying by conservationists failed to move the Sri Lankan government.The international NGO, Friends of the Sea, launched a campaign to persuade the government to submit a proposal to the IMO before this deadline but the Merchant Shipping Secretariat, the shipping administration arm of Sri Lanka, which has to make this request formally to the IMO on behalf of the government, was immovable – at least for now.

“We welcome any move to save whales but we also need to look after the economic impact of shifting the shipping routes leading to the Hambantota and Colombo ports,” the Director-General of Merchant Shipping, Ajith Seneviratne, said.

“A special committee of stakeholders such as National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) and other researchers will be set up to evaluate the need and we will move forward accordingly,” Mr. Seneviratne said.

Ceylon Shipping Corporation Executive Director Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekera warned of the economic implications of such a move.

The shipping lanes cross a feeding ground, said the former NARA head, Dr. Hiran Jayawardene, who was instrumental in the creation of the international Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head through the IMO in 1980 to reduce the risk of oil tanker collision and avert marine pollution on the south coast and tourist beaches.

Dr. Jayawardene said he had tried to find a way to mitigate ship strikes on whales when he had been chairman of NARA but the previous regime had blocked him, concerned that this could harm its pet project, the Hambantota Port.

The Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC) and the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), which operates under his guidance, will continue studies on ship strikes in Sri Lankan waters, Dr. Jayawardene said.

The Friends of the Sea based its push on a research paper led by Professor Thilak Priyadarshana Gamage of the University of Ruhuna that revealed the world’s highest densities of blue whales were observed in the current shipping lanes, peaking along the westbound shipping lane.

Dr. Gamage’s research, based on whale sighting reports on 35 survey days, suggest risks of ship strikes could be reduced by 95 per cent if shipping were to transit 15 nautical miles further offshore.

Blue whales usually migrate but the blue whale population off Lanka’s southern coast stay year around, so protecting that habitat is vital.

Two leading whale researchers, Asha de Vos and Anouk Illangakoon, also agree that ship strikes are the major problem for the blue whales off the south coast but they want more research to be done on correlating whale deaths to ship strikes, and on the secondary effects of moving sea lanes, before a request is put to the IMO.

Ms. Illangakoon worries that unregulated whale-watching activities harass the whales and drive them further offshore right into the shipping lane.

She says sighting and stranding data (information on whales found washed up on beaches) before and after the inception of commercial whale-watching indicate there has been a change in areas of sea where whales are found and a corresponding increase in fatal ship strikes along the southwest coastline.

Although these findings are based on limited data she recommends that human activities are quickly regulated to mitigate adverse impacts on these endangered blue whales.

Ms. Illangakoon wants more research to be carried out on whales and links to ship strikes before proposing a change in shipping routes.

“My reason for saying so is that the waters around Sri Lanka (not just in the south) are prime marine mammal habitat containing a multiplicity of species and they are not all confined to coastal waters.

Whales certainly do occur well beyond the current shipping lane and we might create another problem or exacerbate the present problem by blindly shifting shipping lanes,” she said.

Ms. de Vos, who has long been researching blue whales off Mirissa, says ship strikes are the biggest threat to these whale pods and is positive that she can come up with recommendations next year regarding a shifting of the shipping lanes.

“My work is really focused on reducing the risk of ship strikes from occurring and I am working very hard to scientifically show what alternatives we have,” she said.

“At the moment, the science I conduct uses field data and remotely-sensed data to build simulations that can give us a sense of where the whales are most at risk and how much at risk they might be.

“I am very excited that we are on our way to getting some great results that can help with important management decisions of this nature not only in Sri Lanka, but also in other parts of the world where whale strikes are a known problem,” she said.

When whales occasionally wash up dead on our beaches it is difficult to ascertain whether they died from ship strikes or of another cause.

It is not known with certainty how many whales have died after being hit by ships and disappeared into the deep.

“It is very difficult to conclusively find out the reasons for death whales. Often the carcases that washes ashore are badly decomposed.

Those that washed nearshore in good condition are cut by people in search of amber,” says Dr.Rekha Maldeniya, a research officer attached to NARA.

Professor Gamage’s paper, published earlier this year, states that there was an increase in instances of blue whales being washed up dead on Sri Lanka’s southern and western beaches: there were nine in the two years to 2012 and several of them had injuries consistent with being hit by ships.

In that period, 15 whales – of them, 11 blue whales – are thought to have died from ship strikes around the island. From January to May last year four blue whales were found dead on our beaches with the cause not known with certainty.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson revealed that the recently-concluded Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers that met in Indonesia in October took a decision to have a regional workshop on whales and carry out research in Sri Lanka.

The IORA Centre of Excellence, housed at the Institute of Policy Studies, is to organise the workshop, which will also discuss conservation and the whale-watching industry in the region.

The Sunday Times contacted the IMO to clarify Lanka’s chances of obtaining a shift in the shipping route in order to prevent whale strikes.

The IMO said the United States, Canada and Panama had previously submitted ship re-routeing requests in order to protect marine mammals and these had been adopted by the IMO.

Sri Lanka still has a chance to submit a maximum six-page proposal of a by December 25 but it is unlikely the country would do so, and it appears the opportunity will have to be taken next year.

With several researchers working on similar objectives, it is important that there is a co-ordinated effort to build a case to the IMO.

Protecting this population of blue whales will be beneficial for Sri Lanka, not only for the whales’ value in Nature but also for economic values as the whale-watching industry depends on the continued presence of these prized cetaceans.

Why can’t whales escape ships? Asha de Vos answers an oft-asked question: being good at manoeuvring in water, cannot whales get away from ships bearing down on them?

“Sometimes the whales might not see the ship as an oncoming threat because the ocean is so noisy and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the ship is coming from,” Ms. de Vos said. Noise pollution can disorient the whales.

They could also be engaging in activity that is important to their survival and concentrating more on that than on moving out of the way of oncoming traffic.

For example, if they are in an area with lots of good food, the drive to forage could override the need to move away from the noise. Or they could be mating.

A whale might not hear the oncoming vessel until it is too late due to the “bow null” effect. Since a ship’s engine is located at the back of the vessel, if the vessel is large, a “bow null” effect is created that means the bow blocks the noise of the engine from whales that are in front of the vessel.

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