Asha de Vos, in her introduction, spoke of the uniqueness of Sri Lankan blue whales and the history of overharvesting with over 1294 blue whales illegally harvested by Soviet factory ships over 4 seasons during the nineteen sixties. As a result their numbers have been decreased to low levels and they are considered endangered. While today these species have been freed from overexploitation within the Indian Ocean, they face a range of other anthropogenically-induced threats that impinge on their recovery. Dr. de Vos pointed out that reducing ship-strike is one of the most tractable problems they face given that ships travel along very clear, predefined lanes in the ocean. When considering the question of why blue whales don’t avoid the oncoming ships, Dr. de Vos explained that the increasing acoustic pollution in the oceans causes a masking effect that impedes the whales’ ability to locate the direction of the oncoming ship, which means it is unable to move out of the way in sufficient time. The southern coast of Sri Lanka is home to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and ship-strike is the largest threat facing this population today. At present, Dr. de Vos is spear-heading research with a large team of collaborators to understand the mitigation options for reducing ship strike of whales in our waters. The aim is to have minimum negative impact on the shipping industry while having maximum gains for the whale populations.
Dr. Robert J. Brownell Jr., Member of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group and International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee, spoke at the meeting on previous workshops held in regard to this issue elsewhere. Dr. Brownell identified mitigation measures undertaken in other countries and how speed reductions alone can reduce the problem. He mentioned that the increasing interest in this issue is a direct result of the rising number of ship strikes globally. Sri Lanka is considered one of the priority areas for addressing this problem in the world given the high levels of ship related whale deaths documented. Dr. Brownell went on to note the complexity of approaching this issue since there are conflicting priorities of stakeholders in this process, where there would be less focus on alleviating the problem if it would be economically disadvantageous. There is also the problem of regional and national regulations that come in which affect the pursuit of solutions. However he noted that stakeholders should get involved and there should be an action framework and monitoring system set up to aid the resolution of this concern.
Dr. de Vos then explained the manner by which an attempt to mitigate the problem can be initiated. Studying and tracking of these mammals is very limited in Sri Lanka and correct evaluations need to be done on the distribution of the whales to satisfactorily address this issue. The need to understand where the whales are, why they are where they are, and where they overlap with shipping lanes is a priority. This data will then feed into a conservation action plan for blue whales in Sri Lanka along with identified mitigation measures.
The discussion led to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority volunteering to request all vessels travelling through Sri Lankan waters to provide any information on ship-strikes and the coast guard offering their assistance for all aspects of research. It was also agreed that Dr. de Vos would conduct identification workshops for the coastguard and navy so they may collect data on sightings in a more structured manner