Updated: Feb 16, 2019
by a Special correspondent
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has recently directed the Tourism Development Authority to develop water-based tourism inland as well as at sea. This augurs well for Sri Lanka which is blessed with a rich network of rivers that flow from the central mountains to the sea as well as inland lakes and lagoons and hundreds of irrigation ‘tanks’ that are remnants of the ancient civilizations of the country.
In a country which seeks to project itself as a cutting-edge tourism destination, there is much to be done with respect to modernization in the post-war period. Said Mr Padi Withana, Chairman of the Tourism Development Authority.
While retaining and utilizing traditional craft as an attraction by itself, no longer is it possible for Sri Lanka to haul out mechanized fishing boats which were modified for whale watching especially in the south in a desired integration of the local fishing community in a new livelihood.
The safety and comfort of these boats are being questioned along with the manner of their operation with some boats often darting in and out of the busy sea-lanes endangering the lives of tourists; should there be miscalculation or engine failure which exposes the passengers to being run-over by large fast-moving merchant and other vessels which cannot be stopped or maneuvered easily to avoid a collision. Harassment of whales is regularly complained of despite efforts to improve the conduct of these ‘whale watch’ boats - especially those operating out of Mirissa.
When whale-watching was initiated in the early 1980s off Trincomalee, Sri Lanka was rated the then "hottest spot" for this activity. A promising and fledgling industry rose and faltered as American tourists flocked to Sri Lanka. Then one of a handful of destinations for whale watching, after the war in Sri Lanka this country emerged along with over 90 others where marine mammal observation had developed.
The Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM) was established in 1981 by the Sri Lankan Government with a field station in Trincomalee to support of the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary declared under the IWC for 10 years. The Sri Lankan initiative of 1981 pushed by Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC) at its Conference in 1990, called for the Indian Ocean to be a Sanctuary for whales for all time in an 11-nation declaration later extended in 1994 to all marine mammals for all time.
The Indian Ocean Sanctuary remains a permanent sanctuary and the only such ocean-wide sanctuary. Considering a strategy for regaining the lost position amidst the host of other destinations offering whale watching, CRIOMM and the affiliated Fauna International Trust launched the slogan naming Sri Lanka as "the destination where the two largest living creatures on earth - the elephant on land and the blue whale at sea can be seen in one destination."
This was proven at Trincomalee and Habarana in the north and in south, at Mirissa, Yala and Uda Walawe. A further marketing lever was for Sri Lanka to show-case the "sperm whale - the world’s largest predator".
CRIOMM recently convened the conference on Marine Mammals and Ships Strikes at the BMICH (January 26-28, 2016) to assess the issues, evidence and mitigatory measures along with experts and stakeholders - especially the shipping industry. While mitigation approaches are under consideration, CRIOMM Director of Research, Howard Martenstyn, author of the foremost publication on marine mammals "Out of the Blue" - who in this post succeeded his brother, the late Lt Cdr Cedric Martenstyn SLN lost in the war.
Martenstyn said efforts now focus on a combined critical review of the whale stranding information maintained by CRIOMM and improved research on population size and distribution for the blue whales as well as other whale species in our waters. A stepped-up combined institutions’ national marine mammal dedicated research effort will be undertaken to gather information on marine mammals. There is paucity of such information for basing management decisions as was seen recently at the ship strikes meeting, he said.
The National Marine Mammal Team which was built-up in the 1980s which should have been in the forefront today had collapsed and a new team drawn from the various institutions was being co-ordinated by CRIOMM to pool and strengthen expertise. Anouk Ilangakoon a member of the original marine mammal team and former Director of Studies at CRIOMM and a member of the 1980s marine mammal team has also observed that there is a need for further research. In addition to previous training programmes, a revamped training programme is being run to accelerate capacity-building for this research effort.
A marine mammal survey area of 300nm (East-West) x 100 nm.(North South) and centering on the Dondra Head and straddling the Mainline East-West shipping route has been identified by CRIOMM. This would help overcome the hastily conducted NGOs surveys on which attempts have been made to use external pressure on the country to shift the international sea lanes amidst shipping industry opposition and concern that in an increasingly competitive port industry, international shipping should not be discouraged by being asked to stay away from Sri Lankan shores.
Cautioning mariners about the presence of whales and reducing vessel speed when transiting the traffic separation scheme which can reduce collision risks are under consideration said Dr Hiran W Jayewardene, Convenor of CRIOMM. A further consideration he said is that traffic separation schemes in the Exclusive Economic Zone which is juridically "an area of the high seas" were not contemplated under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.
Further the right of innocent passage would always remain in the territorial sea areas off Dondra Head and permit vessels to continue to exercise this right which can only be suspended temporarily in the Territorial Sea but could not be permanently denied. Dr Jayewardene who headed Sri Lanka’s delegation to the Law of the Sea Conference and was also architect of the Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head in 1980 at IMO, further pointed out that the scheme was put in to prevent the oil tanker collisions and had worked well for over 35 years. This had kept us largely oil pollution free from tanker casualties.
As a lover of whales and pioneer of research and management efforts in the country and for the region, he said: "We are faced with another challenge, which must be properly and professionally studied before we respond." A Committee under the Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga is examining these options
Parallel with this effort was an initiative to revive the improved "whale-watch regulations" which had been drafted by a committee of the Tourism Authority but cast aside by former Director of Wildlife as "not necessary". This has now been revived for review under the Department of Wildlife after a delay of several years and there is a focus on improving enforcement.
Marine Mammal Management Areas at Sea are proposed by CRIOMM for these centres.
A further initiative of CRIOMM is to work on "small boat regulations" and consider the nature and direction of the future generation of modern boats for the tourism industry including whale watching. A third initiative has been taken to work with the Tourism Development Authority, Urban Development Authority and Fishery Harbours Corporation to bring integrated infra-structure planning and develop the "whale towns" of Mirissa. Kalpitiya and Trincomalee and ensure modern facilities for tourists. These include vehicle parks, visitor centres, museums, improved craft and berthing coordinated with safety, comfort and hygiene as well as visitor amenities, restaurants/cafes and souvenir stalls. Such facilities will be designed to provide added value to the local communities.
This article on marine mammals was published in The Island newspaper on 20th February 2016.