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Rerouting Shipping Lane to Protect Blue Whales

Scientists and conservation groups are calling for one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes to be rerouted in an effort to protect the world’s largest animal.

Blue whale tail gracefully rising above the ocean.
A blue whale in the shipping lane off Sri Lanka’s coast. Photograph: IFAW/Christian Loader

Since 2008, researchers have been painstakingly piecing together clues about a little-known, endangered population of blue whales that live off the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Rather than migrating vast distances like most blue whales, the Sri Lankan population is thought to live in the region year-round, grazing on tiny shrimps and communicating via distinctive vocalisations.

What has also become clear is the immense threat they face. The whales’ habitat overlaps with a major shipping artery that connects east Asia to the Suez Canal, leaving them vulnerable to ship strikes and noise pollution. On an average day the whales face off against a relentless barrage of about 200 ships, many of them container ships or oil tankers that stretch up to 300 metres in length. Nobody knows how many whales are killed in collisions.

“The problem for these whales is that they live in a giant obstacle course that we have created,” said Asha de Vos, a marine biologist who launched the first long-term study of the region’s whales.

In Sri Lanka, the push is now on to tackle what De Vos describes as a “uniquely resolvable issue”, after research suggested that a small shift in the shipping lane could make a big difference to the whales.

“Studies indicate that if a shipping lane were to be established 15 nautical miles to the south of the current lane, the risk of collisions with blue whales would be reduced by 95 percent,” say the supporting trio of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Great Whale Conservancy and OceanCare.

For ships travelling across the world, the 15-nautical mile shift was “insignificant”, said Sharon Livermore of IFAW. “This tiny little shift in the location of the shipping lane would make a huge difference to the conservation status of these whales.”

Pressure is now being put on the Sri Lankan government to adopt this proposal. It would also be good news for the country's burgeoning 'whale watching' tourist industry.


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