SL rejects proposal for new shipping route at MEPC to save blue whales

However, Sri Lanka, which has a thriving 'whale watching' industry as part of its tourism, has agreed to further discuss the matter for the better conservation of blue whales.

London: Sri Lanka on Thursday squarely rejected a proposal for the creation of a new Traffic Separation Scheme, south of the island nation, to reduce ship strikes on the endangered blue whale population in the Northern Indian Ocean.

The proposal, placed by conservation NGOs at the 80th session of the Maritime Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) here, was also opposed by countries like India, China, Egypt and Pakistan.

The IMO plenary has left this for further discussions and deliberations.

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However, Sri Lanka, which has a thriving ‘whale watching’ industry as part of its tourism, has agreed to further discuss the matter for the better conservation of blue whales.

The NGOs allege that the current ship route, considered one of the busiest ship routes in the world, is the global hotspot for ship strikes on blue whales.

“Data on this unique blue whale population has been collected for many years by local researchers, highlighting the importance of the habitat that the TSS currently overlaps with the rich feeding ground for this endangered species,” Sharon Livermore, Director, Marine Conservation, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told PTI.

Calling Sri Lanka’s concerns unfounded, she said the new proposed Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) is only 15 nautical miles away from the present TSS.

According to IMO, TSS is a routeing measure aimed at the separation of opposing streams of traffic by appropriate means and by the establishment of traffic lanes.

“With the new TSS, we could avoid 95 per cent of the ship strikes on blue whales,” Russel Leaper, Head of a scientific sub-committee of the International Whale Commission (IWC), said.

He said the conservation agencies have been discussing the matter with Sri Lanka for several years but without any result.

Sri Lanka, however, rejected the data provided by the conservation NGOs, alleging that the numbers were not in line with the actual data that its government possesses.

“Whale stranding records of the Government of Sri Lanka reveal that most of the carcasses were in the late stages of decay, which indicated that the mortality may have taken place far away from the Sri Lankan coast but washed ashore in Sri Lanka,” Capt. Upul Peiris, Director Navigation, Government of Sri Lanka, said while raising the country’s objection at MEPC 80.

He alleged that the incidents indicated in the document presented at the MEPC, based on various studies, had not scientifically proven the cause of death of the whales and the locations of collisions, as appropriate.

“Monitoring by photo identification of whales reveals that signs of injuries and/ or recovered wounds are very rare,” Peiris said

He asserted that Sri Lanka is committed to the conservation of endangered blue whales and is in the process of continuously monitoring them in the Northern Indian Ocean.

China and India, while backing Sri Lanka up, quoted the IMO’s existing rules and said any change in a shipping route should be done in consultation with the coastal member state, upholding its territorial sovereignty.

Sri Lanka also raised issues of possible expense escalation and an increase in pollution if the new ship route is established, as it would result in ships travelling extra miles to their destinations.

The NGOs, however, rejected the argument, saying that the economic impact, considering the conservation of the biggest living creatures on Earth, is minimal.

“Research on 30 whale carcasses in Sri Lankan waters between 2010 and 2014 revealed that almost half of these deaths were due to ship strikes,” Livermore said.

According to Leaper, smaller shipping boats in the current TSS increase the safety risks for the shipping industry and also to the thriving whale population in the area.

“Fishing vessels are here for the same reason why the whales are here. A change in the current TSS would only be beneficial for Sri Lanka and the shipping industry in general. Sri Lanka has a huge tourism industry that promotes whale watching,” Leaper said.

Countries like Canada and Spain have also backed the NGOs up, supporting the formation of a new TSS.

Canada expressed its support and said it has already done the same to protect the North Atlantic whales. Canada added that it was ready to share its experience with Sri Lanka for blue whale conservation.

The MEPC chair submitted the document for further deliberations, putting pressure on Sri Lanka to make a decision on the matter sooner.

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