Sri Lanka Stalls On Supporting Rare Alliance To Protect Blue Whales

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In Sri Lanka, an unlikely alliance between shipping companies and conservationists has been made to protect blue whales. They aim to move a busy shipping lane away from the whales to prevent collisions, but the government is yet to sign off.

It is very unusual for shipping companies to put aside profits in the interest of protecting marine megafauna. But that is exactly what has happened in Sri Lanka where major players in the shipping industry have sided with conservation groups to protect a key blue whale population. They plan on moving a busy shipping lane over 28 kilometres away from its current location to avoid collisions with the largest animals on the planet. Unfortunately the change cannot be made until the government signs off on the deal which they seem unwilling to do.

The population of blue whales in Sri Lanka is estimated to be between 600 and 1,500 strong which is around a tenth of the global population. This particular group is strange in that they don’t appear to ever leave the area. Blue whales are known for their long distance migrations across entire ocean basins but as far as researchers can tell this is not the case in Sri Lanka. This makes protecting them even more important because they rely heavily on this single stretch of water which is currently full of large shipping vessels.

The main problem with large container ships overlapping with blue whales is collisions between the two which are almost always fatal for the animals. There has been an increase in the number of dead whales found around the coastline, some of which have been discovered completely cut in half by a ship’s propeller. Last year the shipping vessel Quartz also docked in Colombo unaware that a 60 foot blue whale carcass was draped across its bow. But collisions aren’t the only problem large ships create. They also produce a large amount of noise pollution that disrupts vital behaviours in blue whales and other cetaceans.

It is because of these issues and awareness raised by conservation groups that shipping companies are willing to act. Bryan Wood-Thomas, vice president of the World Shipping Council, told The Daily Mail that “This is one of the few cases in the world where we can physically separate ships from where the whales are”. He went on to say that all major shipping groups in Sri Lanka supported the idea despite meaning an increase in the amount of fuel and time they would lose because of it.

However the Sri Lankan government has been unsupportive of the idea because they believe the increased distance to some ports will deter larger global companies from using them in the future. Political instability in Sri Lanka is also to blame for the delay. As recently as late December a new government was formed there after the president sacked the prime minister in what has been described as a constitutional crisis.  

Although they may not be completely willing and have other things to worry about it is vitally important that Sri Lanka signs off on the proposed shipping lane change. Not only will they be protecting a key population of blue whales in their own waters. They will also be encouraging important relationships between the shipping industry and conservationists. The two groups often do not see eye to eye on very many issues and so opportunities to get them to co-operate are few and far between. Similar alliances will need to be made across the world if we are to effectively protect all forms of marine life in the future.

A final decision is “hopefully” expected by the Sri Lankan government by the end of March.

To check out more of Harry’s work, visit his site Marine Madness or follow him on twitter @harryjpbaker

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