Archive for the ‘Marine Mammals’ Category

Another dugong butchered in Mannar

April 17, 2017

Can giving incentives for abandoning illegal fishing methods save dugongs and other threatened marine life..? 

Caught red-handed – Dugong meat found in the 3 wheeler with the culprit

Two people who were arrested while transporting 80 kilos of dugong flesh in a three-wheeler have been released on bail by a court.

There were detained on Sunday, April 9, by the navy at Thavulpadu in Mannar and handed over to to regional officers of Department of Wildlife Conservation. They were then produced in court and released on surety bail of Rs.100,000 each. The DWC unit in Mannar is investigating, according to Channa Suraweera who is overseeing its marine unit.

Dugongs recorded in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka continue to be hunted for meat and are now believed to be ‘critically endangered’ locally. Killing a dugong or the possession of its meat was banned in 1970s. Dugongs are often killed when entangled in fishing nets as well as through dynamite fishing.

Despite the laws, the killing [as bycatch] continues [with atleast 13 dugongs killed last year].

Marine activists say innovative methods are needed to discourage fishermen from killing dugongs. A trial is underway in Kalpitiya, Puttalam and other areas where dugongs are found. The project aims to give financial aid to the fishermen to replace illegal fishing gear.

A Kalpitiya fisherman inspecting his Sea Bass cage

“We have replaced about 30 illegal nets in Sottupitiya area in Kalpitiya. An agreement was also signed with fishermen not to resort to illegal methods,” said Thushan Kapurusinghe of the Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, which is implementing the initiative.

This initiative is financed and managed Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment (UNEP) under the ‘Dugong and Seagrass Project’ that also functions in number of other countries of the Dugong range.

The project is also helping fishermen to set up crab cages and sea bass cages in the shallow waters, Mr Kapurusinghe said.

There is high demand for sea bass, also known as moda. The baby fish are being fattened in metal cages set up in shallow seas. Lagoon crabs, too, are being raised this way. “Raising sea bass is profitable. So this is an added income for us,” said Mr Priyantha, a local fishermen who plans to set up a sea bass cage in Kalpitiya.

The project is part of an international effort across the dugong range. It is an incentive-based approach to dugong and seagrass conservation. It is funded and managed by the Global Environment Facility and UN Environment.

The project, which ends in April, is also supporting alternative livelihoods for fishing communities including batik, sewing, dried fish packaging, coir mat production, and ornamental fish breeding.

During a recent media visit, we got a chance to meet a fishing community in Serakkuliya in Kalpitiya.

K B Nilmini, who has taken up sewing, together with a group of housewives said she can earn a decent living. “Our men used nylon nets to catch more fish. It is not legal, but that was a way to earn enough money. But, now, as I can support the family with the income from sewing clothes, we can abandon illegal fishing,” Ms Nilmini said.

But the numbers engaged in illegal fishing is large and they need to be persuaded to give up the practice.

Sewing for getting an additional income for abandoning illegal fishing

[Published on SundayTimes on 16.04.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/incentives-for-dugong-hunters-to-abandon-illegal-killings-abandon-illegal-killings-237146.html. Please note that some corrections are required from the edited version. This blog post is published with all the corrections] 

Super pods of sperm whales put on marine spectacle

April 6, 2017

The eight-strong orca pod get ready to charge towards the sperm whales. Pix courtessy Andrew Sutton

While observing a super pod of nearly 100 sperm whales, marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara witnessed a rare occasion when killer whales attacked the marine giants in the seas off Kalpitiya. It was an epic battle.

Sri Lanka is famous for wildlife spectacles such as this along with the largest gathering of Asian elephants, huge pods of blue whales and rare sightings of leopards.

One spectacle in the making is super pods of sperm whales (physeter microcephalus). The sperm while is the largest ‘toothed whale’ which can dive to depths of 3,200 feet in search of its favourite food – the giant squid. Female sperm whales and their calves live in pods of 15-20 members, while males tend to roam alone in cooler waters closer to polar regions. A super pod of whales is formed when such smaller pods gather for feeding, socialising or mating. March to April seems to be the time such super pods form and in 2012 the largest such gathering consisting of over 100 individuals was recorded.

Marine biologist Ranil Nanayakkara who has studied the sperm whale super pods from 2010, left Kalpitiya shores on March 23 to scan the ocean specially for sperm whales. It turned out to be their lucky day when they witnessed the sperm whale super pod about 15 nautical miles from Kalpitiya at 9.15 am after travelling for about one hour. “There were over 150 sperm whales on the ocean of around one kilometre. The super pod we saw consisted of 50 to 60 individuals,’’ Nanayakkara said.

Together with Ranil, British author Philip Hoare and photographer Andrew Sutton were on the boat and it was a show of a life time. The larger sperm whale males had joined the super pod and they witnessed love making on a massive scale. The team witnessed foreplay — rubbing against each other, tail slapping, spy hopping, rolling over. Even researchers could see the animals’ aroused genitals and as they watched, a pair swam belly to belly under the boat.

The sperm whale is also famous for making sounds. It makes the loudest sounds of any animal and also emits morse-like “codas” used to communicate long distances. The sea is full of sound as well and Nanayakkara was listening to these codas using special ear phones.

The ocean was like an opera, said Nanayakkara.

A large male sperm whale that came to rescue the weaker pod

They observed a large male deviate from the super pod and swim rapidly northward. “When a sperm whale swims fast, its large head stays out of the water – so we could clearly say it was in a great hurry. Then several other large males started following the first one. Seeing several large male sperm whales moving northward we thought it could be an aggression related to mating, so we followed them,” Nanayakkara explained.

After travelling two or three kilometres, the team found the large males with a pod of about 10 females with younger whales. The males packed their bodies tightly and it was like several logs stacked tightly. The men in the boat also saw something else. One person in the boat alerted the others to a dolphin but to their surprise it was the unmistakable dorsal fin of an orca. The sperm whales had rushed to protect the pod that came under attack by the orcas.

The black and white orca (orcinus orca), is a mid-sized toothed whale. it is the largest member of the dolphin family and became a popular after being featured in the movie ‘Free Willy’. But the orca is not an innocent animal as it is an agile predator in the ocean also known as the ‘killer whale’.

“It was a pod of about eight orcas attacking a weaker maternity pod. The large males would have heard the distress call and had rushed to protect them. The males packed their bodies side by side tightly guarding the weaker whales from the predatory orcas,” Nanayakkara said. The water around the smaller pod was cloudy with orangish whale poop – a defense mechanism used by the distressed whales to conceal themselves from the predators.

Killer whale attacks on other whales have been reported on a handful of occasions previously. Working as a team, they usually challenge the weaker female or a calf to hunt it down. According to Nanayakkara, the orcas found in our waters is transient and they are born hunters.

“We had also observed an amazing communal defense mechanism used by the sperm whales where the males encircle the weaker females and young putting their bodies in front of the attacking killer whales,” Nanayakkara said. This is a known as the “marguerite formation”, named after the shape of the flower by that name. In this formation, the heavy and powerful tail of an adult whale is pointed outward, readying to deliver lethal blows to any incoming attacker.

Ranil Nanayakkara Listening to the songs of sperm whales

The researchers also experienced a somewhat scary experience. Since the marguerite formation was not effective, the whales started using the boat as a cover to avoid the orcas. They moved to the other side of the boat when the orcas charged and a collision could have been dangerous.

This ‘battle of the titans’ dragged on for more than an hour. The sperm whales finally made the orcas give up. Nanayakkara said there were about 20 killer whales at that time and it could also be the largest orca pod seen in Sri Lankan waters.

Nanayakkara said it was one of the amazing moments he had witnessed in his whole life.

Published on SundayTimes on 02.04.2017http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170402/news/super-pods-of-sperm-whales-put-on-marine-spectacle-234975.html

Know the sperm whaleThe head of the whale contains a liquid wax called spermaceti, from which the whale derives its name. Spermaceti was used in lubricants, oil lamps, and candles. Scientists have yet to understand its function, but believe it may help the animal regulate its buoyancy. Some also believe that the spermaceti has bio-acoustical amplification properties, enabling the whale to produce the loudest sounds of any animal.Mature males average 16 metres (52 ft) in length but some may reach 20.5 metres (67 ft), with the head representing up to one-third of the animal’s length. Capable of plunging to 2,250 metres (7,382 ft), it is the second deepest diving mammal, following only the Cuvier’s beaked whale. The sperm whale’s clicking vocalisation, a form of echolocation and communication, may be as loud as 230 decibels under water. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s. Sperm whales can live for more than 60 years according to sources on the Web.Ambergris, a waste product from its digestive system, is still used as a fixative in perfumes.

Threatened dugongs thrown a lifeline

March 28, 2017

The dugong is the most threatened marine mammal likely to disappear from our waters, but there are efforts to save the species reports Malaka Rodrigo. Published on SundayTimes on 26.03.2017  http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170326/news/threatened-dugongs-thrown-a-lifeline-234096.html

A Dugong (Dugong dugon) swims in the Red Sea (c) Fergus Kenedy

Thirteen dugongs were killed last year, according an informal survey in the North Western coastal areas by marine activists. This is one dugong killed every month and considering their rarity, is worrying, says Prasanna Weerakkody of Ocean Resources Conservation Association.

A dugong washed ashore on Nadukuda beach in December, 2016 (c) ORCA

The latest dugong deaths occurred December last year. A carcass was found on Nadukuda beach in Mannar. A few weeks earlier, another carcass washed ashore near Thavilpadu beach. Fishing activities using explosives are common in the nearby Vankalai Coral Reef and marine activists initially thought dynamite had killed the dugong found in Nadukuda.

“Through informal discussions with fishermen, we found out that one dugong had been trapped in a net. The fishermen knew it was illegal to pull it ashore and had it anchored under water to collect it when the navy is not around. But the carcass got loose and washed ashore,” revealed Weerakkody. There could be many other dugong deaths that go unreported, he said.

Dugongs are also called mermaids of the sea because some sightings of mermaids are actually misidentified dugongs seen from afar

The dugong is also known as the ‘sea cow’ for its habit of grazing on the seagrasses on the ocean bed. Seagrass is different from seaweeds (which is an algae) and are actually more closely related to the flowering plants with roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. Seagrasses can form dense underwater meadows and an adult dugong consumes as much as 45 kg seagrass according to experts.

Dugongs are vulnerable to extinction because they are killed directly or indirectly by human-related activities, which include fishing, coastal development and hunting. The seagrasses on which they depend are thought to be one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth.

In 2015, the “Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project” was initiated to improve protection and conservation of dugongs and their seagrass habitats around the world, said United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP)’s Max Zieren who recently visited Sri Lanka. Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste and Vanuatu is part of the project, which is the first coordinated effort, he added.

In Sri Lanka, the project focuses on the northwest region, namely the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay where dugongs have been recorded. The project is coordinated by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and eight other partner organisations are supporting.

Sugath Emmanuel, local fisherman and diver in Kalpitiya, said he had not seen a dugong alive. He recalled eating dugong flesh during his childhood, in an area where many dugongs were caught. The flesh was considered a local delicacy. Hundreds of dugongs were killed before it was outlawed in the 1970s. Now, about 90 percent of the dugong killings are accidental or by-catch.  

Dugongs are categorised as ‘vulnerable’ in IUCN’s threatened species list considering global populations, but they can be ‘critically endangered’ in Sri Lankan waters, says Arjan Rajasuriya, project manager of International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He has been diving for the past 30 years, but has yet to see a dugong alive.

IUCN’s responsibility in the project aims at establishing an additional 10,000 hectares of marine protected area in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. Rajasuriya says dynamite fishing should be halted.

The project also aims to raise awareness among people and also give incentives to abandon illegal fishing methods. Project partner, Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, is seeking to reduce the negative impact of destructive fishing practices on seagrass habitats and provide income generation opportunities to local communities in return for their commitments for the prudent use of habitat and natural resources in the Puttlam lagoon.

The Biodiversity Education and Research NGO has taken on the education aspect of the project, especially targeting schools. Ranil Nanayakkara, who heads the group, says the response from school children has been positive.

The overall project is financed by Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP / UN Environment)  supports its implementation together with the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their Range of the Convention on Migratory Species.

Dr Lakshman Peiris, who is the project manager of DWC, said the Wildlife Department was focused on addressing marine issues with the establishment of a special unit.

The Sunday Times also asked Peiris what will happen after the four-year project ends in 2018. “The project will give us lots of information. We will create a management plan and will make sure its implementation together with other strategic partners such as Department of Fisheries, Coast Conservation & Coastal Resources Management Department, and the Marine Environment Protection Authority. The Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Coast Guard can give us lots of support by monitoring and stopping illegal activities,’’ Peiris added.

Dugongs are also found in the Indian part of the Gulf of Mannar, but unfortunately India is not part of the project. Marine biologists say India too needs to get on board. Peiris of the DWC said plans are underway to increase coordination between two countries.

Marine biologists also stress the need for action, once a strategy to save the dugongs are made. “Since the dugong is a charismatic species, we can use activities geared to protecting it to also help us to provide a refuge for other threatened marine creatures,” marine expert Rajasuriya said.

Experts gather to discuss future of Dugongs 

The third Meeting of Signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Dugongs and their habitats (Dugong MOU) was held last week in Abu-dhabi. A number of DWC and NARA officials participated at the meeting representing Sri Lanka that signed the Dugong MOU on 2012.

IUCN’s Sirenia Specialist Group (dugongs and manatees)’s Sri Lankan representative Ranil Nanayakkara said the gathering provided a good platform to learn about conservation initiatives used by experts in other countries

Surveying Seagrass habitats

Tech tools track dugongs
The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency has developed seagrass mapping methodology and is doing research to produce seagrass maps on distribution, species composition, density and status, and threats in Mannar, Palk Bay and Palk Strait.
Prasanna Weerakkody says sonar is being used to identify seagrass beds. These are then mapped and what varieties of seagrass available in that area is marked. The Ocean Resources Conservation Association team is using drones above shallow waters to map the areas. “We particularly focus on areas in which fishermen say they had seen dugongs in the past,’’ Weerakkody said. “To conserve, we first need to know where dugongs are.’’
He says informal investigations are necessary to find out where dugongs are being caught. DWC’s Channa Suraweera showed us a new mobile app they had developed to get more records of exact dugong sightings. When a dugong is seen, a fisherman who has the mobile app can record its exact GPS location while taking a photo at the same time.

Mannar Dugong carcass washed ashore in November, 2016

Dugong also attracts tourists

Fishermen playing deadly games with dolphins

March 12, 2017

A video captured by an onlooker shows some of the dolphins being hauled in while alive

Deaths of a dozen dolphins trapped in a beach seine net (ma dela) last Wednesday evening in Trincomalee has stirred strong emotions.

A video captured by an onlooker shows some of the dolphins being hauled in while alive, contesting claims by fishermen that they had released some.

Nine Trincomalee fishermen who were arrested were denied bail and are in remand custody.

All marine mammals in Sri Lanka are protected under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance, and Fisheries Act. The fishermen were arrested under the provisions of these laws, said Roshan Aluthgamage, the OIC of Trincomalee Harbour.

The dolphins had been caught near the inner harbour. The fishermen who had come from nearby Manayaweli village started laying the net around 4 pm and it was dark around 7pm when they pulled the net in. According to the fishermen, they realized dolphins were in the net but that it was too late.

Beach seine nets are known as ‘ma dela’ in Sinhala. It is a fishing net laid from the shore and is a traditional fishing method, which is legal. The fishermen also had a license and it is also possible that they did not target the dolphins. But as it is a crime to kill the protected marine mammal, they were arrested, Aluthgamage said.

Marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara, identified the victims as spinner dolphins (stenella longirostris), the most acrobatic of all dolphins.

In 2013, the killing of 40 dolphins as a result of an illegal purse seine net, called the ‘laila net’ in Kalpitiya, highlighted the need to look at fishing practices around Sri Lanka.

Laid out: The dead dolphins. Pic by Rahul Samantha

There are suspicions that hundreds of dolphins are getting killed in fishing nets.

As it is illegal to kill a dolphin or possess its flesh, Sri Lankan fishermen also tie their tails to sand bags and sink the carcasses, say marine activist Upali Mallikarachchi.

Often the flesh is used as bait, he said.

There are occasions when fishermen target dolphins. Two fishermen in Mirissa were arrested last year in the possession of a dolphin thay had harpooned, according to news reports.

Senior Lecturer of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology University of Ruhuna, Dr Terney Pradeep Kumara, said dolphins alive are more worth than dead pointing out the benefits from the whale and dolphin watching industry. The worldwide whale and dolphin tourism industry was estimated to be worth US$2 billion in 2010. he said Sri Lanka stands to lose a good opportunity.

Travice Ondaatjie, the Conservation Officer of the Sri Lanka Sub Aqua Club, said that killings in Trincomalee show the need for more effective monitoring by the Ministry of Fisheries and law enforcement. A few years back many more dolphin were killed in Kalpitiya, too. But were the perpetrators punished? he asks.

Dr Pradeep Kumara, general manager of the Marine Environment Protection Authority, urged greater cooperation among government agencies. He suggests a coordinating framework involving the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Fisheries, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, Central Environment Authority, and even the Forest Department as they manage some of the mangroves, to protect marine resources. Published on SundayTimes on 12.03.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170312/news/fishermen-playing-deadly-games-with-dolphins-232419.html

 

Mirissa whale boats to be reined in

February 22, 2017

whalegraphicMore regulations and guidelines will be imposed on whale-watching boat operators in Mirissa. Licenses will not be issued to vessels this year as part of the measures planned, wildlife officials say.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation says regulations will be updated, while the Ministry of Tourism wants to upgrade the infrastructure.

Sri Lanka is famous as a popular spot for whale watching, especially blue whales. Trincomalee, Kalpitiya and the southern sea off Mirissa are the ideal locations. The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. Some operators sail too close to the whales and put tourists at risk, while harassing the massive mammals.

To regulate the industry, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was updated in 2012 with 14 guidelines. But now after taking the advice of whale experts’ the DWC is planning to introduce a new set of guidelines, said Channa Suraweera of the marine division.

Activists say the number of vessels needs to be controlled, considering the chaos in Yala.

Regulations require whale-watching boats to get approval from the DWC. Suraweera also said licences will not issued to whale watching boats this year for the season that lasts until October. Monitoring is done with the support of the coast guard and the navy.

Suraweera said the DWC too will increase monitoring, revealing that a ticketing system will be introduced in Mirissa.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickrema Perera said about 500 will be recruited to the Department of Wildlife and some of them could be assigned to monitoring whale-watching.

The Tourism Minister’s Secretary, Janaka Sugathadasa, said the industry should self-regulate for the sake of its own sustainability. The Tourism Ministry officials have also met whale-watching tour operators, Fisheries Harbour Corporation, DWC, local councils, and other stake holders recently.

Sri Lanka has a unique position to promote upmarket whale-watching tourism, so it is also important to upgrade the infrastructure, Sugathadasa pointed out. He said a separate jetty has been proposed and a pre-feasibility study will be soon started.

Sugathadasa also agreed the number of boats should be controlled.

Published on SundayTimes on 19.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170219/news/mirissa-whale-boats-to-be-reined-in-229587.html

The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. (File pic)

A whale of a problem; Saving sea giants or saving industry

May 19, 2016

Article published on 07.02.2016 on SudayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160207/news/a-whale-of-a-problem-saving-sea-giants-or-saving-industry-182223.html

Scientists and economists debate major step of shifting shipping route

A Blue Whale hit by a ship in Lankan waters

There was heated debate over the problem of saving whales off Sri Lanka from ship strikes as a three-day forum last week heard the faster speeds at which ships now travel pose a heightened danger to these huge endangered creatures.

A major maritime organisation, however, declared none of its members had ever experienced a ship strike on a whale
A busy shipping route runs through the ocean off southern Sri Lanka which has been identified as an area in which the giant blue whale and many other whales are found in abundance all year around.

A proposal by conservationists to shift this shipping route, known as the Dondra Head Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), 15 nautical miles (nm) southward is hotly opposed by shipping industry representatives who argue the country’s economy would suffer if this were to happen. Some conservationists too question a shifting of the shipping path.

Last week’s consultative forum organised by the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) focused directly on this issue under the title, “The Environmental Health of the Ocean: First International Expert and Stakeholder Conference on Marine Mammals with special Reference to the issue of Ship-strikes and the IMO Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head”.

The Chairman of the Scientific Sub-Committee on Ship Strikes of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Dr. Russel Leaper, said whenever a whale path overlapped a shipping route ship strikes were possible. As ships become bigger and faster, the time a whale has to dodge an approaching ship decreases so ship strikes have become an increasing threat to whales, Dr. Leaper explained.

Dr. Thilak Priyadarshana of the University of Ruhuna and a group of international researchers who published a paper last year called “Distribution patterns of blue whale (Balaenopteramusculus) and shipping off southern Sri Lanka” advocate moving the shipping lane.

Whale researcher Dr. Asha de Vos too believes the whales off Mirissa are vulnerable to ship strikes. She said the blue whale population off southern Sri Lanka is unique as the whales appear to be staying in our waters throughout the year, a fact that could be attributed to a rich feeding ground.

Dr. de Vos showed the forum photographs of the whale that carried into harbour in 2012 and the horrific underwater images taken by photographer Tony Wu showing a blue whale carcass with a gash cut by a propeller on its tail that could have come from a ship strike.

“Less than 10 per cent of ship strikes are getting reported as the dead whales could sink or be found at a bad stage of decomposition after long time drifting and the reason for the death cannot be confirmed,” she said. “In some cases, in particular involving large vessels, captains might be unaware that a collision with a cetacean has occurred,” Dr. de Vos explained.

“The whales are in these nearshore areas because these areas are productive and have food. Imagine if there was a bus driving through your kitchen, how would you feel? You would have to go there to get food despite the danger of getting hit.

“The solution to this problem is simple. Shifting the shipping lanes a few nautical miles south of its current position will not really affect the shipping industry but will have huge gains for a species that is very valuable to our economy.

In fact, shipping lanes have been shifted to stop ship-whale collisions in many other parts of the world, so Sri Lanka is not doing anything out of the box or innovative. We will just be doing what is right,” Dr. de Vos stated.

Shipping industry representatives at the forum said they feared moving the shipping route would harm associated industries.

The close proximity of the shipping route to the southern coast of Sri Lanka, in between the two major ports of Galle and Hambantota, brings the opportunity of business from ships passing near the service ports, said Captain Ranjith Weerasinghe of the Company of Master Mariners.

“But ‘out of sight’ would result in ‘out of mind’, so a shift would affect Sri Lanka economically,” he told the IOMAC forum.

“Currently about 1,000 ships per month call for services off the port of Galle as a direct result of having the Traffic Separation System in our coastal proximity.

If this route shifted 15nm it would make the westward passage from Rondo Island coming out of Malacca straight through the Bay of Bengal a direct course to the north of the Maldives, making that the obvious position for shipping services, losing Sri Lanka an opportunity,” Captain Weerasinghe pointed out.

“None of our 275 members, the vast majority of Master Mariners of Sri Lanka, whose sea experience ranges from 12-40 years of sailing, has had a ship strike on a whale ever,” Captain Weerasinghe declared.

Based on the University of Ruhuna study, the NGO, Friends of the Sea, lobbied to push the Sri Lankan government into submitting a proposal to shift the shipping route last year but the government wanted to study the proposal further.

“It is true that we need to conserve the whales, but we should also look at our national interest,” said IOMAC Secretary General Dr. Hiran Jayewardene. He called it as a campaign to prevent ships coming to the ports of Sri Lanka.

“We need hard facts to evaluate whether ship strikes are a very frequent occurrence off southern Sri Lanka that can affect the blue whale population,” he said. “Even if we move the lane further south, what is the guarantee that it will not affect other populations of whales?” Dr. Jayewardene said.

The Director of Research of the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), Howard Martenstyn, also said there was not enough evidence to determine the ship strikes is a major threat to whales off Mirissa. Commenting on the 2012 incident where a Bryde’s whale carcass was dragged into harbour on the bow of a vessel, Mr. Martenstyn said that could have been a drifting dead whale carried by the ship.

He said the photograph of a gash wound on the whale could not definitely show whether the whale died due to ship strike or whether a drifting dead whale had been struck with a propeller.

Mr. Martenstyn pointed out there was no significant increase of carcasses found on the southern coast, saying if the whales off Mirissa were regularly hit the number of dead whales found in these areas should show an increase.

Dr. Russell Leaper of the IWC said the accuracy of Sri Lankan whale ship strike records would be reviewed by a panel of international experts over the next few months before being entered into the IWC database and this would resolve some of the confusion between researchers in Sri Lanka over these records.

“Compared to other areas where shipping lanes have been moved to reduce risks to whales, Sri Lanka has a very strong case,” Dr. Leaper said. “Of all the whale and ship strike problems I have worked on in other areas this is probably the clearest case of the highest risk and also the most straightforward action that could reduce risk.

“We see that moving the passing shipping further offshore could only benefit Sri Lanka. As well as protecting whales it would greatly reduce the risks to whale watching vessels. This is an accident waiting to happen which would have serious consequences for Sri Lanka’s tourist industry.

“Shipping safety would also be improved with lower risk to coastal fishing boats, lower risk of collisions between large ships and less chance of oil spills along the coast. It also allows more space closer to shore for ships using Sri Lankan ports.”

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, who led an aggressive media campaign to brand Sri Lanka for whale-watching, said whale-watching generated much more money than whale watching bookings alone would suggest as customers used the full spectrum of accommodation and other services.

“So whale watching is now a key element for tourism in the south and any move to protect these whales is welcome by the tourism industry,” he said. “The Indian Ocean blue whale population is low due to extensive illegal whaling in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s.

Furthermore, like many long-lived animals, population recovery can be slow. Therefore every individual that is saved by reducing ship strikes will help conserve these intelligent and sentient beings and help the livelihoods of people in the south,” Mr. Wijeyeratne said.

Sri Lanka’s whalesNineteen whale species have been recorded in Sri Lankan waters by the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), and there are in total 28 species of marine mammal, including dugong, off our shores.There are two kinds of whales: those with teeth and those that are toothless but have special plates called baleen to filter food. The giant blue whale is a baleen whale. The sperm whale, the largest toothed whale, can live in super pods of more than 100 creatures, a spectacular sight.

Off Mirissa, once in a while, are sightings of orcas or so-called killer whales. This is probably the most intelligent marine mammals and, sadly, is often a feature in large aquariums, trained to perform tricks. They have won hearts in films such as Free Willy.

Whales are slow breeders so if a number of individuals are killed in a short period of time the recovery of the population is slow.

Moving whales out of the fast lane

December 13, 2015
Missed chances in preventing ships from killing mighty mammals 

Image of whale came to Colombo harbor by attached to a ship

Sri Lanka missed a November 27 deadline to submit a proposal to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that would save endangered whales off the south coast from being killed or maimed in the busy shipping lane offshore that is also a feeding ground for the giants.

Known as “ship strikes”, these accidents are a growing concern in the seas off the southern coast where one of the world’s largest shipping route cuts across rich blue whale habitat.

Some marine biologists propose shifting this shipping lane 15 nautical miles southwards as a solution but shifting a shipping route is difficult and needs much coordinated international action – and Sri Lanka is anxious not to damage its business interests.

A country wanting an international shipping lane moved had to apply to the IMO for permission by November 27 for consideration next year but lobbying by conservationists failed to move the Sri Lankan government.

The international NGO, Friends of the Sea, launched a campaign to persuade the government to submit a proposal to the IMO before this deadline but the Merchant Shipping Secretariat, the shipping administration arm of Sri Lanka, which has to make this request formally to the IMO on behalf of the government, was immovable – at least for now.

“We welcome any move to save whales but we also need to look after the economic impact of shifting the shipping routes leading to the Hambantota and Colombo ports,” the Director-General of Merchant Shipping, Ajith Seneviratne, said.

“A special committee of stakeholders such as National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) and other researchers will be set up to evaluate the need and we will move forward accordingly,” Mr. Seneviratne said.

Body of blue whale hit by a ship on Sri Lankan waters (c) Tony Wu

Body of blue whale hit by a ship on Sri Lankan waters (c) Tony Wu

Ceylon Shipping Corporation Executive Director Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekera warned of the economic implications of such a move.

The shipping lanes cross a feeding ground, said the former NARA head, Dr. Hiran Jayawardene, who was instrumental in the creation of the international Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head through the IMO in 1980 to reduce the risk of oil tanker collision and avert marine pollution on the south coast and tourist beaches.

Dr. Jayawardene said he had tried to find a way to mitigate ship strikes on whales when he had been chairman of NARA but the previous regime had blocked him, concerned that this could harm its pet project, the Hambantota Port.

The Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC) and the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), which operates under his guidance, will continue studies on ship strikes in Sri Lankan waters, Dr. Jayawardene said.

The Friends of the Sea based its push on a research paper led by Professor Thilak Priyadarshana Gamage of the University of Ruhuna that revealed the world’s highest densities of blue whales were observed in the current shipping lanes, peaking along the westbound shipping lane.

Dr. Gamage’s research, based on whale sighting reports on 35 survey days, suggest risks of ship strikes could be reduced by 95 per cent if shipping were to transit 15 nautical miles further offshore.

Blue whales usually migrate but the blue whale population off Lanka’s southern coast stay year around, so protecting that habitat is vital.

Two leading whale researchers, Asha de Vos and Anouk Illangakoon, also agree that ship strikes are the major problem for the blue whales off the south coast but they want more research to be done on correlating whale deaths to ship strikes, and on the secondary effects of moving sea lanes, before a request is put to the IMO.

Ms. Illangakoon worries that unregulated whale-watching activities harass the whales and drive them further offshore right into the shipping lane.

She says sighting and stranding data (information on whales found washed up on beaches) before and after the inception of commercial whale-watching indicate there has been a change in areas of sea where whales are found and a corresponding increase in fatal ship strikes along the southwest coastline.

Although these findings are based on limited data she recommends that human activities are quickly regulated to mitigate adverse impacts on these endangered blue whales.

Ms. Illangakoon wants more research to be carried out on whales and links to ship strikes before proposing a change in shipping routes.

“My reason for saying so is that the waters around Sri Lanka (not just in the south) are prime marine mammal habitat containing a multiplicity of species and they are not all confined to coastal waters.

Whales certainly do occur well beyond the current shipping lane and we might create another problem or exacerbate the present problem by blindly shifting shipping lanes,” she said.

Ms. de Vos, who has long been researching blue whales off Mirissa, says ship strikes are the biggest threat to these whale pods and is positive that she can come up with recommendations next year regarding a shifting of the shipping lanes.

“My work is really focused on reducing the risk of ship strikes from occurring and I am working very hard to scientifically show what alternatives we have,” she said.

“At the moment, the science I conduct uses field data and remotely-sensed data to build simulations that can give us a sense of where the whales are most at risk and how much at risk they might be.

“I am very excited that we are on our way to getting some great results that can help with important management decisions of this nature not only in Sri Lanka, but also in other parts of the world where whale strikes are a known problem,” she said.

When whales occasionally wash up dead on our beaches it is difficult to ascertain whether they died from ship strikes or of another cause.

It is not known with certainty how many whales have died after being hit by ships and disappeared into the deep.

“It is very difficult to conclusively find out the reasons for death whales. Often the carcases that washes ashore are badly decomposed.

Those that washed nearshore in good condition are cut by people in search of amber,” says Dr.Rekha Maldeniya, a research officer attached to NARA.

Professor Gamage’s paper, published earlier this year, states that there was an increase in instances of blue whales being washed up dead on Sri Lanka’s southern and western beaches: there were nine in the two years to 2012 and several of them had injuries consistent with being hit by ships.

In that period, 15 whales – of them, 11 blue whales – are thought to have died from ship strikes around the island. From January to May last year four blue whales were found dead on our beaches with the cause not known with certainty.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson revealed that the recently-concluded Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers that met in Indonesia in October took a decision to have a regional workshop on whales and carry out research in Sri Lanka.

The IORA Centre of Excellence, housed at the Institute of Policy Studies, is to organise the workshop, which will also discuss conservation and the whale-watching industry in the region.

The Sunday Times contacted the IMO to clarify Lanka’s chances of obtaining a shift in the shipping route in order to prevent whale strikes.

The IMO said the United States, Canada and Panama had previously submitted ship re-routeing requests in order to protect marine mammals and these had been adopted by the IMO.

Sri Lanka still has a chance to submit a maximum six-page proposal of a by December 25 but it is unlikely the country would do so, and it appears the opportunity will have to be taken next year.

With several researchers working on similar objectives, it is important that there is a co-ordinated effort to build a case to the IMO.

Protecting this population of blue whales will be beneficial for Sri Lanka, not only for the whales’ value in Nature but also for economic values as the whale-watching industry depends on the continued presence of these prized cetaceans.

Why can’t whales escape ships? 

Asha de Vos answers an oft-asked question: being good at manoeuvring in water, cannot whales get away from ships bearing down on them?“Sometimes the whales might not see the ship as an oncoming threat because the ocean is so noisy and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the ship is coming from,” Ms. de Vos said. Noise pollution can disorient the whales.

They could also be engaging in activity that is important to their survival and concentrating more on that than on moving out of the way of oncoming traffic. For example, if they are in an area with lots of good food, the drive to forage could override the need to move away from the noise. Or they could be mating.

A whale might not hear the oncoming vessel until it is too late due to the “bow null” effect. Since a ship’s engine is located at the back of the vessel, if the vessel is large, a “bow null” effect is created that means the bow blocks the noise of the engine from whales that are in front of the vessel.

Murder of a mermaid

September 18, 2015
Police inquiry into rare dugong killed in Mannar

Police are investigating the tragic killing of a dugong, the rare creature possibly believed to be a “mermaid” in olden times, in Mannar after the Navy came across a group of fishermen chopping up the mammal’s flesh on South Bar beach.

A local resident, Mohammed Haleem, said the Navy handed over the culprits to police and wildlife officers last week, and that they are out on bail.

tail side of the dugong (c) Mohamed Haleem

Carcass of slain dugong in Mannar – photo by Mohamed Haleem

Dugongs are sometimes hunted but they also fall victim by being inadvertently included in fishing catches or drowning after being entangled in mist fishing nets or falling victim to dynamite fishing. The cause of the action that killed the Mannar dugong is unknown. Its vital organs have been sent for analysis.

Also known as sea cow or muhudu-ura (sea pig) in Sinhala, kadal pandi in Tamil, the dugong (Dugong dugon) is a marine mammal that primarily feeds on seagrass. Dugongs were hunted openly for their flesh and oil decades ago and their population plummetted.

In the 1970s, legal sanctions to protect dugongs were incorporated into legislation but rarely enforced. It is a known secret that still several animals are still killed annually, researcher Dr.Ranil Nanayakkara said.

The Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay are the last known hideout in Sri Lanka and India for these elusive beings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List on threatened species categorises the dugong as “vulnerable to extinction”.

The dugong population in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka could be “critically endangered”, points out the IUCN Sri Lanka’s country office’s Marine and Coastal Thematic Area Coordinator Arjan Rajasuriya.

A mermaid related to an elephantThe dugong, referred to as a sea cow, sea pig and even sea camel by different communities, is scientifically close to elephants. These mammals can stay underwater for six minutes without surfacing.
It is also claimed that the legends of mermaids have been inspired by dugongs and manatees as they sometimes breathe by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water. With forelimbs containing five sets of finger-like bones and neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their heads, it is possible that
dugongs and manatees could be mistaken for humans
from afar.

In global terms, there are more stable dugong populations in places such as off Australia but if quick action is not taken the species’ future is indeed bleak in our local waters.

Dugongs are long-lived, and animals as much as 70 years of age has been recorded. But it is a slow breeder, giving birth to a single calf after an 18-month pregnancy. The mother dugong then looks after the calf for more than one and half years. So the kiling of even a few dugongs can have serious implications.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) confirms that the dugong is already extinct in several island states and suffering steep declines in at least a third of the areas where it is found.
It is ironic that the dugong at Mannar was killed just when a new project to protect dugongs and their seagrass ecosystem had begun, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

 Dynamite fishing poses grave threat

Vankalai reef destruction from blast fishing (c) Arjan Rajasuriya

Illegal dynamite fishing is common on many parts of the east coast, and a marine researcher said his team heard dynamite blasts almost every day while surveying the Vankalai coral reef, located in dugong habitat.
It is not known how many dugongs are killed in blast fishing, which destroys underlying ecosystems such as corals in addition to killing all living creatures within range of the blast.
A pair of fully-grown dugongs were killed by dynamiting in 2010.

Blast fishing Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Marine and Coastal Thematic Area, said dynamite fishing occurs particularly in around Errakkandy, north of Nilaweli, and around Batticaloa and Kalmunai. It is also commonly practised by fishermen in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, Mr. Rajasuriya said.
He witnessed the destruction the dynamite caused to the corals underwater. “If explosives are used at close range while the researchers are under water they could cause severe injuries. We had to chase the blast fishermen away in order to do our work,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.
Constant sea patrols can prevent blast fishing only to a limited extent so Mr. Rajasuriya believes this matter has to be pursued mainly on land to prevent explosives going into the hands of fishermen.
Trying to arrest culprits at sea is difficult as there are many ways they could evade arrest, such as by dumping the explosives when the authorities are spotted. It is also difficult to prove that a haul of fish had been killed with the use of dynamite.
“We need to turn our attention to land and find out how these fishermen get explosives. A good intelligence network and consistent action could effectively seal off the sources of dynamite,” Mr. Rajasuriya said. 

Published on 13.09.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150913/news/murder-of-a-mermaid-163945.html

Beaked whale with Sinhala name retakes its place in history

February 23, 2014
Push to honour Prof. P.E.P. Deraniyagala for his research

This week, an enigmatic whale first described studying a specimen found in Sri Lanka has been reclassified as a new marine mammal species. The whale species – member of a family known as beaked whales for their elongated beak-like snouts – bears an interesting history.On 26 January 1963 a specimen of a dying 4.5m-long, blue-grey female beaked whale was washed ashore at Ratmalana. After carefully studying its form and structure, marine scientists led by Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala (Director of National Museum 1939-1963) declared it to be a new species of beaked whale belonging to the family Ziphidae.

Dr. Deraniayagala named the whale Mesoplodon hotaula for its pointed “beak” (in Sinhala, hota means beak and ula means pointed”).The skull of the holotype- the term for a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based – was kept in the National Museum Collection.Two years later, however, the Mesoplodon hotaula was re-grouped into the related ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, Mesoplodon ginkgodens, by overseas scientists and the Mesoplodon hotaula name was dropped.

Beaked whales are deep divers that are believed to be able to dive to 1,800m (5,900 feet).A total of 22 beaked whale species have now been identified but most of them have not been studied alive in their oceanic habitats. Identification of most have been based on dead or dying whales that have been washed ashore.

As belief began to grow again that the whale found in Sri Lanka was a distinct species, a visiting research scientist at the University of NSW in Sydney, Australia, Dr. Merel Dalebout, wrote to the Director of the National Museum in Colombo inquiring about the possibility of taking a DNA sample from the whale to make comparisons with samples taken from elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

Researcher Dr. Manori Goonatilake inspecting the specimen Deraniyagala collected in 1963

Dr. Manori Goonatilake, Assistant Director National Museum, became involved in the study. With the permission of Department of Wildlife Conservation she had sent the DNA samples taken from the holotype’s mandible bone, tooth, and skull using a special hand drill without harming the external appearance of the specimen.

Artist Gamini Ratnavira’s conception of a pod of Hotaula. Courtesy ‘Mammals of Sri Lanka’ by Asoka Yapa/Gamini Ratnavira

The scientists managed to find seven specimens of this species including the Sri Lankan specimen. The haul included three whale carcasses from the United States and one each from the Republic of Kiribati, the Maldives, and Seychelles.

Finally, after a series of DNA and morphological analyses it was recognised that these seven specimens belonged to a distinct species of beaked whale. So 51 years after its discovery off Ratmalana the whale regained its first scientific classification, Mesoplodon hotaula, given by Professor Deraniyagala.“Now it turns out that Deraniyagala was right regarding the uniqueness of the whale he identified. While it is closely related to the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, it is definitely not the same species,” Dr Dalebout says in an article on the university website.

It has been suggested that the common name of the species be “Deraniyagala’s beaked whale” to honour the late scientist for his finding. This is perhaps the only marine mammal carrying a Sinhala name in its scientific name and is a showcase of Sri Lankan researchers’ talent in the field of natural history.
The smelly whale carcasses that wash ashore once in a while grab our attention but are often soon forgotten. This new discovery highlights the Importance of studying these carcasses when they come to light, as studying them in the vast ocean is difficult

New research on jungle giant

Dr. P.E.P.Deraniyagala, director of National Meuseum from 1939-63, was a pioneer in zoology and paleobiodiversity (the study of extinct animals in prehistoric time through studying of fossils) and his research led to the finding of clues of the existenceof species such as the lion, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and gaur (giant wild cow) in Sri Lanka.

At a memorial to Dr. Deraniyagala held a few weeks ago to honour the late professor’s services to his country, scientist Kelum Manamendrarachchie revealed a plan of conducting further research on the “vil aliya”, described as a separate subspecies of the Asian elephant.According to Dr. Deraniyagala, the vil aliya (scientifically classified as Elephas maximus vilaliya) is a subspecies of the Asian elephant that inhabited the flood plains in the current Somawathie National Park Region and was bigger than elephants elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

These elephants fed on grasses and other vegetation on marshy areas and shallow water which are very nutritious, so they grew larger. The vil aliya’s foot became larger, which is believed to be an adaptation more suitable for a life in marshy areas. Plans are underway to perform DNA analysis on specimens collected by Dr Deraniyagala.

Published on SundayTimes on 23.02.2014 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140223/news/beaked-whale-with-sinhala-name-retakes-its-place-in-history-86675.html 

Knocked by a whale into a tailspin

July 31, 2013
How often does one get hit by a giant whale and live to tell the tale? Sri Lankan born Dr. Bishan Rajapakse recounts his horrifying ordeal at Bondi Beach in Australia 
//

It was a normal day on Sydney’s picturesque Bondi Beach. Bishan Rajapakse, a Sri Lankan born medical doctor was with his friends enjoying the waves and the sun on his surfboard. At about 9.30 the surfers were suddenly surprised at the sight of a dark patch that approached them. “It’s a whale” somebody shouted.

Bishan Rajapakse at St Vincents’ Hospital in Sydeny

The giant whale was only few yards away and Bishan turned to have another look while trying to catch a wave. ‘Bang’ was all he remembers, but a video someone shot from the beach shows Bishan’s surf board going up in the air like a toy having been hit by the whale’s large tail.

Bishan lost consciousness but thankfully for him his friends were close and the lifeguards quickly came to his rescue. Bishan was rushed to the hospital and received treatment for shoulder injuries. The incident, which happened early this month, soon became hot news, being picked up by the international media. A video of the moment the whale hit Bishan went viral on social media.

The Sunday Times caught up with Bishan via Skype shortly after he left hospital. Bishan says that he saw the whale approach and the next thing he knew he was waking up on the beach. “I just remember this magnificent whale slowly coming to the right of me and coming for another look. I just kind of felt like talking to it like a dog or an animal, and saying ‘hey’, and that was it.”

The whale was a Southern Right Whale, a common sight from the Sydney coast at this time of year; but they rarely come this close to the beach. “I’ve seen whales in this area, but this is the biggest I’ve ever seen. It looked so massive at close range,” said Bishan, likening its size to that of a mini bus.

Spotted: Surfers get close to the huge Southern Right whale, a common sight from the Sydney coast at this time of year; but the whales rarely come this close to the beach (Reuters)

Several people who witnessed the whole episode from the beach were amazed that Bishan survived with only minor injuries. Bishan however stresses that the whale was not aggressive. “The whale was floating and would never have meant to harm me. It was purely an accident,” said Bishan who adds that they were too close to the whale. He also points out that this is a good lesson for others, for attempting to get closer to these gentle giants is not safe as their movements can be unpredictable.

A 38-old- medical doctor by profession now based in New Zealand, Bishan was born in Wellawatte, Colombo. His father, also a medical doctor went abroad for studies and then on foreign assignments. He was just six months old when they left, but Bishan has nurtured a strong love for the country, coming back in 2006 to do post-tsunami work. He was in Sri Lanka until 2010 doing research on improving mortality and morbidity from pesticide self-poisoning in many areas in Sri Lanka.

Having travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, Bishan is fascinated with the country’s wildlife.

A good lesson for Sri Lankan ‘whale watchers’

Bishan’s ordeal is a good lesson for Sri Lanka too where reports of whale watching boats getting too close to the whales have been rife. Whales are gentle giants and usually not violent, but if they make a sudden turn or dive, an accidental touch could easily topple a boat. Regular whale watchers have complained that although some boats now provide life jackets, they are not in good condition. Such an unfortunate accident may endanger Sri Lanka’s reputation as a top whale destination.

Last year Whale Watching regulations that laid down the minimum distances to get closer to a whale as 100 metres and that stipulated that a boat should not ply in front of or behind the mammals, or block the route of the whale were passed by Parliament. But how they will be implemented remains to be seen.

Published on SundayTimes on 28.07.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130728/plus/knocked-into-a-tailspin-54559.html

ABC - arial view of whale - me and chris

An arial image taken few minutes before the accident (c) ABC/Flickr

Endemic freshwater crabs under threat, need protection: Experts

January 25, 2013

Not only elephants and leopards, but lesser known species such as freshwater crabs, that are jewels of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, need to be protected, say experts.

On January 14, Customs at Katunayake Airport detected a consignment of 125 live freshwater crabs to be exported along with a consignment of other ornamental freshwater fish. The exporter who pleaded ignorance of their importance, was let off with a severe warning.

Custom’s Biodiversity Protection Unit’s Samantha Gunasekara confirmed this as the first detection of freshwater crabs, which were sent to the Dehiwala Zoo. Mr. Gunasekara, an expert on freshwater fish, said, though it is certain the crabs were collected from the wild, it was not prudent to return them to the wild, without knowing the exact location of their origin.

Many of Sri Lanka’s freshwater crabs show very restricted range and could lead to contamination of their pedigrees, as they could also be carrying diseases, hence the decision not to return them to the wild.

Sri Lanka’s freshwater crabs show the highest endemism for any group of animals, where, out of a total of 51 species, 50 are found only in our country. Up to 1994, only eight species of freshwater crabs were recognised as being from Sri Lanka, until an extensive exploration carried out by the National University of Singapore and the Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka, resulted in the discovery of many new species, bringing this number to 51. At that time, all 51 freshwater crabs were endemic to Sri Lanka, elevating Sri Lanka as a Global Biodiversity Hotspot.

But it is unfortunate that this fauna group of high endemism also faces the highest threat of extinction. Nearly half the freshwater crabs – 23 species, are point endemics found only in single locations, making them extremely vulnerable to habitat loss, degradation and pollution. Most of them are restricted to Sri Lanka’s wet zone, where habitats are under the heaviest pressure. Assessing these risks, the recently launched National Red List marked 34 of them as “Critically Endangered”, with another 12 as “Endangered”.

Dinesh Gabadage and M.M. Bahir, perhaps the only experts on the Sri Lankan freshwater crabs, in their “Conservation Status of the freshwater crabs in the National Red List 2012,” suggest the need for urgent conservation actions.

According to these experts, many of the freshwater crabs occur outside the protected area network in private lands. Therefore, they suggest the need to engage the local community to protect these declining species, especially the point endemics that are restricted to single areas.

They also suggest maintaining a captive population for the Critically Endangered species. Perhaps, the stock handed over to the Dehiwala Zoo is a good opportunity to start a captive breeding programme, or Ex-situ conservation mechanisms.

Considering their rarity, there could be a demand for Sri Lanka’s freshwater crabs, from foreign collectors and breeders, warns Samantha Gunasekara.

As the collection from the wild adds to the list of their threats, he emphasises the need to strengthening the Fauna and Flora Ordinance further, to protect these kinds of neglected, yet highly important species that are the gems of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.01.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130120/news/endemic-freshwater-crabs-under-threat-need-protection-experts-29474.html

Over 100 sperm whales gather in Kalpitiya, onlookers puzzled

April 19, 2012

A sperm whale of Kalpitiya Dives (c) Upali Mallikarachchi

An aggregation of over 100 Sperm Whales in seas around Kalpitiya left many onlookers puzzled. This unusually large aggregation was first recorded around the Bar Reef area of Kalpitiya. Upali Mallikarachchi of Marine & Coastal Resources Conservation Foundation who witnessed the large gathering last weekend, said, these Whales were seen swimming North on Saturday.

Whales are capable of sensing sound under water, and there is also speculation that sound waves and shock waves generated by the underwater earthquake last week, could trigger this sudden aggregation. Another phenomenon is underwater drilling during oil exploration too could have an impact.  The whales eventually dispersed by breaking into few groups, said naturalists who had gone to observe this unusual gathering.

A mature Sperm Whale male can grow to 20.5 metres (67 ft) long. The block-shaped head of the Sperm Whale is one-quarter to one-third of the animal’s length which makes it easier to identify. Large aggregation of Sperm Whales has been recorded even in the past, but the timing of this gathering also puzzled the Whale Watchers.

But marine biologist and whale expert Asha de Vos says that large aggregation of whales is not that uncommon. Tropical waters are the ideal habitat for maternal groups of Sperm Whales, and sometimes, maternal groups come together, enlarging the aggregation. Asha says that, in the past, she has also seen areas where there were about 40 whales. However, many whale watching operators say they feel an unusual increase in whale sightings leaving questions for Marine Biologists.

Part of the gathering at Kalpitiya (c) Upali Mallikarachchi

A pod of Sperm Whales in Kalpitiya (c) Upali Mallikarachchi

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=18199:over-100-sperm-whales-gather-in-kalpitiya-onlookers-puzzled-&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=547#

Sri Lanka signs International MOU to protect Dugongs

March 18, 2012

A dugong swimming in the sea (c) Mandy Etpison

Sri Lanka has pledged its support to the long-term survival of the dugongs and the protection of their critical sea grass habitats by becoming a signatory state to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs. The secretary of the Agrarian and Wildlife Ministry Udeni Wickramasinghe on behalf of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has signed this agreement at Abu-dhabi last month marking Sri lanka’s commitment in Dugong Conservation.

This Dugong MOU operates under the United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP) and Convention of Migratory Species (CMS). The Secretariat to the Dugong MOU is funded and hosted by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi where the signing ceremony was carried out.

The dugong (Dugong dugon), often known as the ‘sea cow’ or ‘Muhudu ura’ in Sinhala, is a large, long-lived marine mammal that feeds almost exclusively on sea grass and plays a significant ecological role in the functioning of coastal ecosystems. Dugongs are found in warm coastal and island waters of over 40 countries in the Indo-Pacific. In Sri Lanka, the species is known to occur from Colombo to Jaffna, particularly in the coastal waters of Gulf of Mannar-Palk Bay region, which have sea grass beds and mangrove forests.

Dugongs are classified as ‘Vulnerable to Extinction’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This indicates that Dugons face a risk of extinction getting exposed to a number of threats. Dugongs are long-lived – up to 70 years, but are slow to mature and breed. Females have their first calf when they are between six and 17 years old and then produce calves only once every 2,5–5 years according to marine biologists. The female will usually only bear one calf after a pregnancy which lasts about 14 months. This slow breeding makes them more vulnerable as a population will take a long time to recover.

In Sri Lanka Dugons were considered as a ‘fish’ and allowed hunting until 1970. Though Dugongs are now protected, the killing continued if an opportunity arisen by fishermen. Accidental capture in fishing nets, loss of habitat, boat collision and unsustainable hunting practices like dynamite fishing also responsible for decline of Dugongs. Numbers of Dugongs have fallen victim to dynamite fishing over last few years. Dugongs are bottom feeders grazing sea grass beds, but these too are become an ecosystem that is on the decline, highlighting the need of taking conservation actions.

However, Dugong sightings have now become very rare, so the first step of any conservation plan is to find their current range around Sri Lanka. The UNEP/CMS Office, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, IUCN Sri Lanka and Dilmah Conservation aims to conduct surveys to identify their range as the first activity under the freshly signed MOU. Asanka Abayakoon of Dilmah Conservation said that that the survey will conduct in many parts of coastal zones getting information from fishermen and other parties. The project aims at improving knowledge on dugong distribution, abundance, and their “hotspots’’.

Sighning of the Dugong MOU by secretary of department of Wildlife Conservation

Due to the size of the dugong’s range and their declining population, a coordinated international effort is crucial to the conservation of this threatened marine mammal, calls UNEP/CMS hailing Sri Lanka’s decision to get onboard on Dugong conservation. They believe that other countries in the South Asia sub-region, including Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan, will follow Sri Lanka’s lead to formally join the Dugong MOU.

Dilmah Conservation also hosts marine biologist Dr Nicholas Pilcher who had addressed an audience on Dugong Conservation last month. He stressed the ecological importance of the dugong and the ways in which nature benefits from the wellbeing of the dugong. According to Dr Pilcher, the dugong resides is fairly shallow waters where sea grass beds grow in abundance. It feeds on sea grass and keeps the plants nice and trim. These sea grass beds provide the nesting grounds for juvenile fish and shrimp and the fisheries industry is dependent on the wellbeing of the dugong and sea grass beds. He emphasized the importance of having a proper assessment of the numbers of the remaining species to have a proper conservation management plan illustrating his point by citing the extinction of Stellar’s sea cow – the best example where humanity completely eliminated a marine species from the face of the earth.

Prasanna Weerakkody; a well-known marine naturalist also pointed out that current plans to develop the Kalpitiya islands as a tourism zone could have an impact to the most richest Dugong population in Sri Lanka. The Kalpitiya islands are planned to be developed as tourists destinations which require lots of sea transportation. If speed boats would be employed to save the time, it could be a threat to the Dugongs in the area. The area is having more shallow waters with sea grass beds where Dugongs are frequent, so an unwary speed boat could easily go on top of a submerged Dugong seriously injuring the animal. So it is need to have a proper conservation plan to manage these tourism activities in the biodiversity rich Kalpitiya calls Mr.Weerakkody.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.03.2012

Navy in a whale of a rescue

May 21, 2011

It was Avurudu day, April 14. Whilst their fellow Sinhala and Tamil countrymen refrained from work during the Nonagathaya, Navy sailors and officers in the Inshore Patrolling Craft (IPS) had to conduct their routine check within the Trincomalee Harbor area.

It was around 10.30 am when a sailor spotted something like a submarine moving towards the harbor. He alerted the rest of the team and all eyes were on the moving object through binoculars, while the craft was maneuvered towards it. Suddenly a sprout of water shot up from the surface. “It is a whale” cried a sailor recognizing the unmistakable trail a whale leaves when they breathe. 

“There is a whale approaching the inner harbor”, the message was quickly radioed to the operations room at the Naval Base. The whale was about 10m long and identified as a Blue Whale by naval officers who were experts on these marine mammals. The blue whale is the largest mammal in the world that can grow up to 33 meters. Hence, it is believed that the whale stranded in the harbor was a young one. Though young, it would still weigh several tons and if grounded, it could be difficult to pull it back. The whale was fast approaching the shallows of the inner harbor.

Commander- Eastern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Jayanath Colombage too was alerted, and he had ordered that necessary measures be taken to guide the giant mammal towards the deep sea. The sailors navigated their craft trying to block the whales’ path, but the whale appeared to be lost and seemed reluctant to turn back, continuing on its suicidal mission. Recognising that time was running out, more boats were deployed in an attempt to block the approaching whale. But the whale dived to avoid the naval blockade and continued moving towards shallow waters in a cat and mouse game.
This wasn’t the first time that Trinco Harbor had whales inside it. In April 2009 and 2010, there was a pair of Blue Whales within the harbor. But that time it wasn’t this hard to chase the stranded pair back to deeper waters, before they entered the shallow end of the harbor.

The attempts at dissuading the whale seemed to be in vain, when ultimately it reached a shallow corner of Trinco harbor. The whale was now only partly submerged with part of its body above the surface. These oversized mammals when stranded in shallow waters, can crush their internal organs like their lungs, by their own weight, resulting in their death. So time was running out for the whale with its survival dependant on the actions of the navy team. It was now around 2.30 pm, and while others were busy participating in Avurudu rituals, this group of sailors continued their struggle with the whale.

“Can’t we tow it back to deeper waters..?” an officer suggested. There wasn’t much time left to think, so the decision was taken to attempt the mammoth task. Last year, a naval team also towed an elephant stranded in the sea, but this blue whale is several times bigger than the giant of the land.

Five navy divers were immediately assigned for the rescue mission to try and tie a rope around the giant. A group of them managed to put a rope around the whale’s tail section. They then tried to drag it to deeper waters, but the whale was too heavy. The rope broke for the weight. More time lapsed for the Navy divers to tie another rope. This time a trawler was used. but the giant started pulling it. Even though exhausted, the panicked whale had enough strength to even to pull this large boat. In the attempt to pull the giant, the second rope too broke.

This time a stronger python rope used to pull ships was used. A diver climbed on top of the slippery giant while others got the rope around the whale’s belly underwater. They were careful not to injure the whale that was now exhausted with the struggle, and secured the rope across its fins. Realizing that the whale was too heavy for a single boat, this time two boats were deployed to pull the giant. There was no movement initially, but slowly the power of the two boats gradually overcame the giant mammal’s weight. The engines raised to their maximum started heading toward deeper waters.

Fortunately, the exhausted whale didn’t struggle this time, but the boats had to pull it quickly, as otherwise the whale could die by suffocation, if it panicked and could not breathe. So the naval team had to act quickly. After pulling the giant for about 15 min, they reached deeper waters outside the harbor. The rescue mission had taken about five hours and the whale was exhausted. But it had a companion waiting in deeper waters looking for its colleague. Naval officers believe this is the mate of the stranded whale that used to enter the harbor last years too in April.
After the reunion, the whale regained its energy, and with a swift dive, as if to thank its rescuers, the whale dived with its mate and disappeared. Though the Navy officers at the Trinco base missed their Avurudu, they were thrilled to have saved a life. What better way to celebrate New Year sharing their kindness..!!

Why Whales strand..? 

What makes a whale beach itself? Most Marine mammals known as cetaceans use their own form of sonar and are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field – they use both of these to navigate and find their food. Several things can affect these otherwise amazing skills. 

Navigation error – whales and dolphins sometimes get lost as they use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate the seas. There are a number of things (that we don’t yet fully understand) that may cause the animals to become confused, causing them to misread these magnetic lines and become lost. 
Noise pollution – anthropogenic (human-made) noise from drilling, dredging, shipping, offshore developments and seismic surveys can cause disorientation and distress. 
Naval sonar – the effects of sound waves from submarines used by the military (for detecting other submarines, ships etc) can disorientate whales and dolphins 

Some species of cetaceans are very social animals and travel in family groups following a dominant leader. Tragically, if the group leader is sick and swims into shallow water, all the others may follow and become stranded together.
Source: The Natural History Meuseum – London  
http://www.nhm.ac.uk 

Published on SundayTimes web on 24.04.2011 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110424/News/nws_28.html

D-Day for Dolphin

March 13, 2011

What could have been a tragic story ends happily, as Palakudawa residents along with a team from NARA help rescue a bottlenose dolphin stranded in the Puttalam lagoon  – by Malaka Rodrigo

On a truck ride to safety

Is it ok? Anxious onlookers

It was Tuesday evening, March 9. A team from the National Aquatic & Research Agency (NARA) was on their way to Kalpitiya when they received a message from their regional centre about a stranded dolphin. The dolphin had been spotted in the Puttalam lagoon at Palakudawa near Kalpitiya. The NARA team with NARA Chairman, Dr. Hiran Jayawardene, a marine mammal expert, were close to the area and decided to promptly turn around and rush there.

Reaching the lagoon around 8 p.m., they identified the dolphin as a Bottlenose Dolphin. It was about five feet in length. It was a local fisherman who had first spotted it in the lagoon around 6 p.m. according to local sources.

Checking his nets, he had found something heavy and thought it could be a big fish but seeing it was a dolphin entangled in his net, released it into the lagoon. Probably disoriented, it was unable to find its way back and was trying to keep afloat with little movement in the very shallow waters at the edge of the lagoon.

Perhaps it would have given up all hope of life already. But some of the locals gathered at the spot had other ideas. Most of them were fishermen who were saddened at the fate of this intelligent marine mammal in trouble on their doorstep. It was Suranga, a building contractor of the area who had immediately called the Sri Lanka Navy and been directed to the NARA’s regional centre at Kalpitiya.

“The dolphin appeared to be in a satisfactory and calm condition despite the ordeal of being entangled in nets and stranded in muddy shallows and mangroves,” said NARA Chairman Dr. Jayawardene who inspected the mammal. The NARA team initially tried to guide it back to the sea through the lagoon, but found that the fishing nets laid by the night fishermen were blocking its way.

Unable to return to the sea, the dolphin again came back to the lagoon edge, looking helplessly at the people gathered there. Neither the NARA team nor the locals wanted to give up. Someone suggested releasing it at the sea near the Thalawila Church, where considerably deeper seas would allow safer passage for it to swim to the ocean. But the proposed Thalawila sea front was about three km away — and it could be risky to transport the already exhausted dolphin. It would also take time to arrange suitable transport.

Time was running out, and they decided it was a risk worth taking. Suranga volunteered his truck and some of the men jumped into the lagoon and lifted the dolphin putting gunny bags under its body. It weighed around 80 kgs, they estimated. But luckily it did not struggle – perhaps already exhausted. With the help of the bystanders, the NARA team carefully loaded it onto the open truck. The truck used to transport building materials soon become the Palakudawa Dolphin’s temporary taxi.

To make sure it would not fall off or become panicked by the sudden jolts, a few of the men got into the open truck. Sitting on the railings, they talked to the dolphin even stroking it gently during the journey. Perhaps the intelligent mammal understood their concern for it didn’t struggle on the way to the new release point.  

It was a procession of sorts that made its way to the Thalawila Church as more curious onlookers started following the truck in their vehicles to witness the unusual scene. They reached Thalawila Church around 9 p.m. The dolphin was quickly and carefully unloaded and taken to the boat landing site behind the church. Its weak state worried the NARA team at their final inspection but unable to do anything else, they decided to put it into the sea.
But as soon as it touched the ocean, the docile dolphin suddenly seemed to come to life and soon disappeared into the inky depths as the onlookers breathed an immense sigh of relief that their rescue mission had not been in vain.

NARA officials were especially appreciative of the Palakudawa residents who volunteered to save the dolphin, particularly R.G.E.R. Janser, W. Suranga, W.P.Y. Lambert, S.M. Prakash, A. Yohan Lahiru and S.M. Nisam. It was a rare happy ending for this gentle marine mammal at a time when its kind faces many threats.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.03.2011 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110313/Plus/plus_01.html

A Rare Dolphin fallen Victim to Blast Fishing

February 27, 2011

An eight and a half feet fully matured female indo-pacific humpback dolphin, suspected to be killed by dynamiting in Puttalum Lagoon, found washed ashore at Kalpitya on 13-02-2011.

National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) say this particular dolphin is recorded by NARA scientist on August 2004. This individual has been identified by the “scar” that it has just behind the dorsal fin which is reminiscence of a propeller cut or a nylon rope burn. Entangling with the fishing nets often left the dolphins with permanent scars, and sometime they succumb to injury. However, this particular dolphin, known to researchers for a period of at least five years, remained with at least three scars from entangling of net from different periods.

The indo-pacific humpback dolphin is a critically endangered marine mammal in the world with an IUCN status as “Critically Endangered”. The global population of the indo-pacific humpback dolphin is rapidly dwindling. Indo-pacific humpback dolphin is the only cetaceans that enter into estuarine waters and this particular dolphin is recorded in the Puttalum Estuary, among the pod of six dolphins during the successive years according to NARA.

This female Dolphin constituted the only pod of indo-pacific humpback dolphin, so far recorded in Sri Lanka as per the researchers. The pod was frequently seen around Kalpitiya up to Uchchimuni. However, during the early part of this year this dolphin is found alone and frequenting the Kalpity Narrow. On 13-02-2011, this dolphin carcass washed ashore and found profusely bleeding from the mouth and eyes, which is a clear indication of death due to dynamiting.

as seen in 2004 alive

Last year a pair of rare Dugongs were also been killed as a result of Dynamite fishing. Dynamitefishing also known as blast fishing is a practice of using explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. Underwater shock waves produced by these explosions stun the fish and cause their swim bladders causing an abrupt loss of buoyancy. So the fish floats in the surface, which allows fishermen to collect them easier. “But it is only a small number of fish floats, where most sink to the sea floor” says experts pointing out the disruptive nature of this illegal fishing method.

Blast fishing is also extremely destructive to coral reefs too. The fish density is often higher in and around Coral Reefs, so fishermen found this an easier opportunity. But the Coral Reefs are the breeding ground of fish and dynamite fishing affects all the near shore fishing community. Blast fishing can also be dangerous to divers who dive in vicinity of these sites.

Though it is banned in Sri Lanka, some of the fishermen in many areas use this fishing method. The dynamite issues for commercial purposes such as quarry operations are the main source of these explosives, but some also questions other methods these illegal fishermen used to gain access to dynamites. Free access to dynamite is also a dangerous situation where the explosives can be used for other purposes. Navy can play a big part this fight to stop dynamite fishing, points out the experts.

The traditional fish communities too are against this method of fishing as Blast Fishing also affects their livelihood. So the traditional fishermen too call the authorities to enforce the law to stop Dynamite fishing before many more rare creatures like this humpback dolphin perish.

published on SundayTimes on 27.02.2011