How the island’s busy shipping nexus is killing whales

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By Faadhila Thassim

In spite of multiple calls from marine biologists for steps to be taken to reduce the risk of ship colliding with whales in Sri Lankan waters, the lives of these magnificent creatures remain at risk as vessels in this bustling sea route continues to encroach on their habitats.

Not so long ago, the Attorney General’s Department revealed the death of at least four whales that was associated to the MV X-Press Pearl disaster while conservationists observe there could be more unreported cases; making it clear that the lives of whales are already at a risk.

Impact on whales

A publication by the Oceanswell organisation revealed that ships are the biggest threat to endangered blue whales (Balaenopteramusculus) in Sri Lankan waters as a result of the overlap between the primary Indian Ocean shipping route located off southern Sri Lanka and important blue whale foraging areas.

According to a report on recent blue whale deaths from ship strikes around Sri Lanka, a number of important behaviours such as courtship and feeding have been observed to take place within the shipping lanes and the numbers of whales struck by ships are also mostly unrecorded as they may sink or float offshore.

It has also been observed in a research article published in the Journal of Marine Sciences that for many cetaceans the habitats occupied by ship traffic are important for their survival, which make a ship collision more likely. 

Smaller vessels such as fishing boats, ferries, recreational vessels and whale-watching boats have a greater chance of hitting cetaceans due to their smaller size and high-speed engine capability and smaller boats at high speed have less visibility and opportunity to react before a collision while they are also able to venture into shallower waters increasing the likelihood of collision.

The report also recommended reducing energy expended when travelling; blue whales spend the majority of their time near the surface or at depths that make them vulnerable to strikes by large ships

Recommendations made to reduce collisions

Although one of the main recommendations made by conservationists is to re-route the busy shipping route to avoid collisions, the issue is the possible impact on the economy if such measure is taken as 90 per cent of ship traffic in Sri Lankan waters is by vessels in transit while only 10 per cent use local ports according to Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) data.

A shift in shipping lanes for this traffic will not only reduce risk of collision with blue whales, it will also increase safety to whale-watching boats and fishing boats that use near-shore waters, help address the issue of harmful air-borne emissions and allow Sri Lanka to implement international agreements to which it is a signatory.

While the most effective means of reducing strikes is observed to be re-routing by removing ships from areas important to whales and alternatively, if this is not possible in some locations, restricting speed.

One recommendation made by marine biologist Asha De Vos is moving shipping lanes 28 km (15 nm) offshore to reduce the risk of ships striking blue whales by 95 per cent while adding approximately 10 km (5 nm) to total transit distance between Asia and Europe. The second recommendation made was to impose speed restrictions on vessels, especially in specific high risk areas as this would reduce lethal strikes. It was also noted that vessels like container ships, that are greater than 65 feet in length and travelling at 14 nm per hour (knots) or faster can kill a whale.

Chairman of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Attorney-at-Law Ravindranath Dabare observed that in addition to adopting these crucial practical steps, it is vital for the Navy and Coast Guard to be made well aware of the nature of whales and of the marine environment in general.

Response from authorities 

Re-routing a shipping lane requires extensive research and it includes a huge procedure, Secretary to the Ministry of Ports and Shipping, Chandana Jayalal observed, adding that requests for such re-routing has been made time and time again but several factors have to be taken into consideration before making any decision in this regard.

He noted that discussions will be held with the Ministry of Wildlife to assess the situation before a decision is taken. The move to re-route shipping lanes was not however welcomed by previous regimes sighting the impact on the economy.

The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) when contacted by Ceylon Today also noted that as re-routing ships is a huge task involving several stakeholders, which could take a lengthy period of time adding that discussions will have to be held with scientists attached to MEPA to assess the viability of such move.

Whale deaths reported by collision

While the research published in the Journal of Marine Sciences stated that accurate documentation of whale-vessel collision is difficult for several reasons ranging from cases where operators are unaware that a collision should be reported to situations where the crew are unaware that a collision has even taken place.

The other issue, especially with large ships,is that vessels may not report collisions for reputation sake. In Sri Lanka, ship strike victims that wash ashore sometimes go unreported as they make landfall in remote beaches of the Island.

However, the study confirmed 14 reports of ship strikes between whales and vessels out of all the stranding reported from 2010 to 2014. Most strikes of over 64 per cent involved blue whales, although three other species were also documented, one Cuvier’s beaked whale, two great sperm whales, and one Bryde’s whale, as well as one unidentified baleen whale.

Meanwhile, in early 2012, two blue whales were killed within a 12-day period 18, with one discovered across the bow of a container ship in Colombo Port on 20 March and the second observed floating dead at sea on 2 April with evidence of traumatic injury likely caused by vessel strike.

Other impacts 

While the overall impact on whales is not limited to ship collisions alone, they have also been affected by pollution caused by these vessels. 

According to De Vos, anthropogenic noise diminishes the ability of marine species to feed, breed and respond to predators and scientific studies have reported negative impacts for at least 55 marine species to date. 

There are also increasing concerns about the long-term and cumulative effects of noise on marine biodiversity and noise pollution created primarily by shipping traffic is known to induce a stress response in baleen whales. Shipping noise was also said to compromise the distance over which the whales could hear and vocalise with one another.

Further, it has been observed that sound is extremely important to many marine animals and plays a key role in communication, navigation, orientation, feeding and the detection of predators. Underwater noise from shipping is increasingly recognised as a significant and pervasive pollutant with the potential to impact marine ecosystems on a global scale.

However, Dabare noted that the failure by Sri Lanka to adopt certain crucial marine conventions have resulted in the inability to seek compensation for excessive pollution caused by ships.

Measures

Measures to reduce ship collisions and overall pollution of whale habitat are also crucial to give effect to certain decisions taken by the former Government to improve the health of marine ecosystems.

Assessing impacts, the Cabinet adopted the MARPOL 73/78 Annex VI in 2016 to reduce ship emissions.

The former Prime Minister during the United Nation Conference on Oceans also called for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal 14, titled ‘Life below water’ which was formulated for the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

International efforts 

In 2022, a major shipping and logistics conglomerate, MSC Group, decided to re-route their ships to reduce the risk of collisions with a sub-population of sperm whales in the Mediterranean.  Thereby, MSC Group not only operates container ships in the area, but also Cruises and accordingly all these ships will be re-routed.

It should thereby be acknowledged that further delay in implementing recommendations to minimise ship strikes will only further risk the lives of whales and while the shipping route is of great economic importance to the country, mechanisms should be adopted to implement these recommendations without a huge impact to the economy.