Changing lanes, whales ahead: Sri Lanka urged to redirect maritime traffic | Whales
Scientists and conservation groups are calling for one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes to be rerouted in a bid to protect the world’s largest animal.
Since 2008, Researchers have painstakingly pieced together clues about a little-known and endangered population of blue whales that lives off the southern tip of Sri Lanka. What they have discovered so far hints at a group of cetaceans or even a subspecies. Rather than migrating great distances like most blue whales, the Sri Lankan population is thought to live in the area year-round, grazing on tiny shrimp and communicating via distinctive vocalizations.
What has also become clear is the immense threat they face. The whales’ habitat straddles a major maritime artery that connects East Asia to the Suez Canal, leaving them vulnerable to ship strikes and noise pollution.
On average, the whales face a relentless barrage of around 200 ships, many of which are container ships or tankers that stretch up to 300 meters in length.
“The problem for these whales is that they live in a giant obstacle course that we created,” said Asha de Vos, a marine biologist who launched the first long-term study of whales in the area in 2008. .
It is a clash that is being played out with increasing intensity around the world. Between 1992 and 2013, maritime traffic increased by 300%, with maritime transport becoming essential in around 90% of world trade.
In Sri Lanka, efforts are now being made to tackle what De Vos describes as a ‘uniquely solvable problem’, after research suggested a small change in the shipping lane could make a big difference. for whales.
Its longstanding efforts to relocate the shipping lane have been backed by a trio of international conservation groups, who have officially called on the Sri Lankan government to propose the route change to the International Maritime Organization.
“Studies indicate that if a shipping lane were to be established 15 nautical miles south of the current lane, the risk of collisions with blue whales would be reduced by 95%,” reads the letter from the International Fund for the animal protection (IFAW). ), Great Whale Conservancy and OceanCare.
For ships traveling around the world, the 15 nautical mile offset was “insignificant”, said IFAW’s Sharon Livermore. “This tiny change in the location of the shipping lane would make a huge difference to the conservation status of these whales.”
While there are no hard numbers on how many whales live in the area or how many whales have been killed by ships, in recent years several carcasses have appeared with signs of collision.
“The risk is so high that we know there must be many more deaths than reported,” Livermore said. “The blue whale may be the largest animal on the planet – these are around 22 meters long – but they pale in significance to a 300 meter freighter.”
The rerouting would also benefit the country’s thriving whale watching industry and small-scale fishing communities, whose boats have been spotted floating dangerously close to the gigantic ships in the shipping lane.
“There is no opportunity for maneuver – ships cannot suddenly change course if they see a whale or a fishing boat in their path, so the only way to reduce the risk is to keep these ships away from this critical area,” Livermore said.
His organization first approached the Sri Lankan government to relocate the shipping lane in 2015, calling it a unique opportunity to protect blue whales, 90% of which were shot by whalers in the 20th century.
Others also made overtures. In 2017, the World Shipping Council, which represents most of the world’s shipping companies, urged the Sri Lankan government to consider the move, as did the International Whaling Commission in early 2021.
Sri Lanka’s previous government refused to endorse the proposals, citing concerns in 2019 about the economic impact of the move. The country’s Marine Environmental Protection Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
The vast majority of vessels using the route do not stop in Sri Lanka but only transit through the region, De Vos said, suggesting the economic cost of the move would be minimal. “None of us want industry to stop using our waters or industry to collapse,” she added.
The high cost of shipping for Sri Lanka was highlighted in May, after a cargo ship laden with toxic chemicals caught fire, spilling a dangerous mix of pollutants into waters off Colombo. The spill poisoned the waters, left nearby beaches covered in plastic pellets and covered bodies of water in an oil slick, in what has been described as the country’s worst-ever maritime disaster.
The tragedy struck a chord with many people in Sri Lanka, De Vos said. Now she hoped the sentiment would extend to protecting the “unorthodox whales” that share the country’s waters.
“They are so different from blue whales anywhere else in the world. It’s not just that it could be a separate subspecies, it has a different dialect, different eating habits, different behaviors,” she said. “We could start losing a culture of whales.”