by Madushka Balasuriya
The second annual Colombo International Maritime Conference (CIMC) concluded on Friday, and with it marked a significant step forward in Sri Lanka’s efforts at positioning itself as South Asia’s premier maritime hub.
Over 60 speakers, including several high-level Government officials, addressed the three-day conference on a variety of topics and issues, but the overarching theme – as it was last year – was on how to better utilise Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and South Asia as a whole.
Delegates and speakers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives joined Indian and Sri Lankan stakeholders at the conference this year ensuring that all the major players in the South Asian region were in attendance, while the presence of representatives from wider Asia – most notably Singapore and China – as well as other key global maritime nations meant that this year’s attendees were the most diverse and accomplished group yet to set foot on Sri Lankan shores.
Eye on environment
Another topic that garnered keen interest at the conference was the potential for cruise tourism in Sri Lanka, which many hope can be a top five earner in Sri Lanka’s economy. For that to become a reality however, another, more sobering reality, must be addressed: environmental conservation in the midst of rapid growth.
As per slam.lk, Sri Lanka’s coastal regions plays host to 27 species of marine mammal, including the dugong. Sightings of fin whales, sei whales, minke whales and the finless porpoise have also been observed, but these are questionable or unconfirmed. This can, of course, be clarified with further scientific research, which has the added benefit of improving the data on population sizes and the distribution of existing species.
Sri Lanka’s most famous sighting however is of blue whales, which can been seen in large aggregations, while more recently orcas have also been arriving in Sri Lankan waters every month as they are a transient species.
“Everything is seasonal,” explains Marine consultant and slam.lk founder Howard Martenstyn. “We have four seasons in Sri Lanka, so there are some species you will see more often than not in different parts of the island.”
Sri Lanka is also home to over 100 species of sharks and rays, with some species, according to Martenstyn, having “tremendous touristic value” such as the whale shark and giant manta rays.
On the opening day of the conference Parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya addressed the topic of environmental protection, stating: “An important issue that needs our attention is to effectively prevent, control and manage marine environment pollution with the increasing maritime activities being carried out in our environment.
“The Government agencies entrusted with this responsibility have to enforce the conventions adopted by the International Maritime Organisation in consultation with stakeholders such as ship-owners, operators, repairers, seafarers, classification societies and insurers.”
But the question needs to be asked, is the follow through there or are these simply empty promises? Martenstyn charges that marine life protection laws are woefully inadequate for a country with a coastal region as biodiverse as Sri Lanka’s, especially when compared to some of its neighbours.
“None of the species I mentioned are protected at the moment. For example, the Maldives is a complete shark sanctuary, India protects the whale shark. We really need to start moving in that direction as well, because these animals are worth so much more alive than in the fish market.”
Sri Lanka’s maritime tourism potential doesn’t stop at marine life though, with Martenstyn highlighting that Sri Lanka is home to 30 lighthouses “with about half of them operational,” with Sri Lanka’s best kept secret – on in this case most under-marketed – being shipwrecks.
“Besides whales and dolphins, shipwrecks are really important. And people haven’t realised this. These are two of the things that are really special if you’re in the leisure business,” explained Martenstyn.
“Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world for shipwreck diving and for whale and dolphin watching. That’s an unbeatable combination.”
Sri Lanka has an estimated 200 shipwrecks around its coasts, with a lot of WWII-type shipwrecks on the Batticaloa side, more archaeological ones around Galle, and newer ones near Colombo which are “fantastic,” according to Martenstyn.
In the end, the common message from Martenstyn as well as several other speakers at the forum was that if Sri Lanka is to capitalise on its rich biodiversity, the Government needs a more cohesive plan in marketing the country as whole, with legislation following suit, while the population too needs to be educated on preserving the country’s natural attractions.
You may see the full length of this article about the Maritime Conference in Colombo that appeared in the Financial Times on 29th September 2016.