Have you ever borne testimony to the graceful gliding of a whale that cuts its way through the swift currents of the rippling blue ocean? One of the oldest and most magnificent of sea creatures, whales are unique marine species that should be protected at all costs. However the very existence of whales and the rich marine biodiversity we own have been endangered due to the marathon run by business rivalries in pursuit of commercial gains and the selfishness of mankind in general. Therefore, it is a timely need to raise awareness among all stakeholders including the maritime and private sectors and the Government concerning the protection of these marine mammals and safeguarding the environmental health of the ocean.
Whale watching, which trends as one of the main tourist attractions, has immensely contributed to the tourism industry of Sri Lanka. Nearly 300 whales migrate annually off the southern coast of Sri Lanka in search of food. Satellite images have confirmed the abundance and frequency of whales in maritime zones where estuaries are very often located. However, these images have also proved that whales are frequent in many areas of the ocean surrounding the country. While the boost it has on the tourism industry is immense, this has contributed to the abundance of whale watching cruise services established country wide which is a very good income generator for Sri Lanka. Organisers of whale-watching-trips and environmental conservationists have time and again requested the Government to redirect oil tankers that fleet past the Dondra Head to another direction because the possibility of whales dying or being maimed after colliding against these vessels, also commonly known as ‘ship strikes’ are considerably high. This has also resulted in the potential for whales to move away from the Sri Lanka coastline and swim to foreign shores; a factor that could adversely affect and have serious implications for the whale watching industry in Sri Lanka. However, since the shipping route that cuts across Dondra Head is a leading international shipping route, business stakeholders fear that a shift in the shipping lane could affect trade negatively. In 1980 when this issue came into the limelight, the International Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head was created under the guidance of former NARA head Dr. Hiran Jayawardene. With Dondra Head as the focal point, an International Traffic Separation Scheme was established fifteen nautical miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
To date, no incident of ship strikes have been reported, owing to Traffic Separation Scheme. Such measures further amplified the income of the whale watching industry and attracted more tourists than ever before.
It has been estimated that nearly 5,000 oil tankers navigate the route through Dondra Head annually. The Colombo and Galle Ports have earned a massive income by supplying petroleum and other services to such ships. Private sector companies also engage as service suppliers for these vessels.
Such business had a positive impact on the country’s economy. Stakeholders of the whale watching industry have repeatedly requested that the shipping routes are taken further away from the Sri Lankan coastline where whales frequent because this would augment the chances of the country’s economic prospects in the future. Since taking the shipping routes further away from the coast is a tedious task, people engaged in the whale watching industry fear that the imminent threat to whales from ship strikes still prevails.
In an attempt to address this issue, the first international expert and stakeholder conference on marine mammals titled ‘The Environmental Health of the Ocean’ was hosted recently at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall with special reference to the issue of ship-strikes and the IMO Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head. The three- day conference focused on safeguarding all marine species including whales, the conservation of the marine bio diversity while further discussions were held concerning the Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head. The programme was also dedicated to find out if whales were actually moving away from the Sri Lankan seas towards foreign shores and if any ship strikes had been reported recently as claimed by businessmen in the whale watching industry. The event was organized by CRIOMM (Center for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals) in collaboration with ONS (Our Nation and the Sea Initiative) and IOMAC (Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation).
“Sri Lanka is bordering one of the most important sea lanes of the world” - Co- convener of ONS Justice P. A. Ratnayake
Addressing the gathering, Co- convener of ONS and retired judge of the Supreme Court Justice P. A. Ratnayake said that the current traffic separation scheme in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka is based on Article 22 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
He emphasized that it was crucial to ensure that in the process of safe guarding the marine environment, it is equally important to warrant that the country’s economy was not placed in jeopardy. In addition he stressed the significance of the shipping industry to the country’s economy.
“When we are dealing with the ocean, the marine environment is one of the most important areas. Nevertheless, at the same time we should be mindful of the fact that shipping is of extreme importance for the economy of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is bordering one of the most important sea lanes of the world. The present traffic separation scheme that we have on the territorial sea of Sri Lanka was initiated, based on Article 22 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Dr. Jayawardene played a key role in the creation of the present traffic separation scheme. In my view it has been satisfactorily functioning for a considerable period of time,” Justice Ratnayake said.
Moreover, he said that if the conference was to discuss the traffic separation scheme, then stakeholders needed to act in accordance with the Article 211(6) of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Adding that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has designated Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs) under this provision, Justice Ratnayake stated that the Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO was handling areas designated under PSSAs. “We have to communicate with these individuals to initiate proceedings with regard to any traffic separation scheme. An IMO resolution was passed in this regard in 2005 which deals with PSSAs. In 2009 the Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) of IMO had given some guidelines to member states and it had laid out procedures to deal with whale strikes and so on, but I found that only governments of the member states could invoke these procedures,” he added.
“Whales would come first; a commitment we make in pursuit of our business opportunities”- Director General of Petroleum Resources Development Saliya Wickramasuriya
Addressing the conference, Director General of Petroleum Resources Development Saliya Wickramasuriya said that Sri Lanka had a rich land and maritime bio diversity considering its strategic geographical location. Adding that despite the Petroleum Resource Development’s intention to proceed with oil gas exploration in Sri Lanka, he stressed that it was crucial to protect marine mammals and safeguard the environmental health of the ocean.
“In 2012 following the gas discovery in Sri Lanka, we were confronted with a little interest over oil and gas companies in offshore Sri Lanka.What is important for the oil gas potential for this country is the geographical location of Sri Lanka 200 million years ago. In the Jurassic Period, we were neighbours of Mozambique. The opposite side of the Mozambique Ocean was the centre of the African rift which was at that time the continental of Gondwana, which was a very fertile, extremely enriched catchment area of organic matter. So we share our deposition of environment with Mozambique where the largest gas discoveries of the world have taken place. So, from that standpoint we have an interest to contend with, and it is our intention to proceed with such exploration and develop national resources as sensitively as possible.
We were invited by Dr. Jayawardene as well as sixteen other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders for a series of meetings in 2005 to draw guidelines on environmental management protection for our off shore areas.
The series of meetings resulted in a new approach to prepare guidelines with respect to marine mammal protection and preservation of off shore areas to be given to oil gas companies wishing to enter Sri Lanka for exploration. The ultimate result of this has left us with a very important realization that while oil gas exploring is crucial and development is a vital factor benefiting the country, we would like to make a commitment that in the pursuit of this opportunity the whales would come first,” Mr. Wickramasuriya said.
The conference reiterated the significance of empowering the whale watching industry and safeguarding all marine species including whales. Stakeholders engaged in the shipping and maritime industry were entrusted with the dual responsibility of strengthening the country’s economy as much as preventing the potentials for any ship- strikes that could result in the death or injury of whales. While more awareness should be raised regarding the conservation of whales, it is crucial that all individuals should endeavour towards the country’s development with a conscience and love dedicated towards the protection of the oceanic environment and its marine species, including the gentle giants of the ocean.