Posts Tagged ‘Ship strikes’

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.