Progress As Major Shipping Company Moves Route South Of Sri Lanka To Help Protect Endangered Blue Whales

The world’s largest shipping and logistics conglomerate, MSC Group, is adjusting its shipping route south of Sri Lanka to reduce its collision risk with endangered blue whales. This comes after environmental NGOs OceanCare and IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) approached MSC Group to help protect this endangered species. The decision means that container ships will now avoid an area where the majority of the northern Indian Ocean blue whale population are known to congregate.

The waters off the southern tip of Sri Lanka present a challenge to mariners because of the high-risk of collisions with blue whales, whale watching boats, and small fishing vessels. Unusally for the species, Sri Lankan blue whales are found in these waters year round, and the current international shipping lanes off Dondra Head take ships right through the area with the most whales and whale watching activity.

“By making these small changes, MSC is making a significant difference for these endangered whales. Whales often die as a result of collisions and this population is at-risk. Ship strikes are both a conservation and a welfare problem, and even one whale being hit is one too many,” said Sharon Livermore, Director of Marine Conservation at IFAW.

“Rerouting is the key hope to turn the tide for blue whales off Sri Lanka. It also demonstrates to the Sri Lankan government that now is the time to take appropriate action and move the shipping lane out of blue whale habitat for all merchant vessels” said Nicolas Entrup, Director of International Relations at OceanCare.

Scientific surveys of blue whale distribution conducted off Sri Lanka in the current shipping lanes and further offshore found that if shipping were to transit 15nm south (offshore) of the current routes, the risk of ship strikes to blue whales would be reduced by 95%.

The World Shipping Council, other key shipping industry organizations, and the International Whaling Commission are all fully supportive of establishing a recognized shipping route further offshore, both to protect whales and to improve shipping safety. However, calls to the Government of Sri Lanka have been unheeded to date. By choosing to transit further offshore, MSC is proactively putting the rerouting option into practice, but the majority of shipping still transits through the whales’ core habitat.

In June, in response to outreach by IFAW and OceanCare, the German Shipowners Association (VDR) also called upon its members to reroute it’s ships. The next step is for the Sri Lankan government to bring forward a proposal to the International Maritime Organization to make the safer offshore route an official Traffic Separation Scheme.

Blue whales are the largest living animals on earth with an estimated life span of 80 to 90 years. Blue whales off Sri Lanka grow up to an estimated 25 metres in length and are vocally distinct from other blue whales. Blue whales are listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. The waters from southwest to eastern Sri Lanka have also been identified as an Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) by the IUCN SSC-WCPA Marine Mammal Protected Area Task Force.

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