When the feeding grounds of blue whales overlap with busy shipping lanes, business interests often supersede those of the endangered marine mammals.
But in Sri Lanka, an unusual alliance has been forged: local conservationists and international shipping companies have aligned in a bid to move the heavily trafficked lane about 28 kilometers (17 miles) away to help avoid collisions between whales and freighters.
The only holdout is the government of Sri Lanka, which has so far declined to sign off on the proposal, jeopardizing the future there of the biggest animal ever known to have lived on the planet, scientists say.
The hundreds of blue whales in Sri Lankan waters — marine biologists estimate there are 600 to 1,500 — feed on tiny shrimp in the shipping lane, and are also believed to mate and give birth nearby.
Shipping executives say they would gladly relocate the traffic corridor, recognizing their ships would be safer in waters not already clogged with fishing vessels, whale-watching boats and the whales themselves, which can grow to more than 33 meters (100 feet), more than twice the length of a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur.
Bryan Wood-Thomas, vice president of the World Shipping Council, said the group wrote to the Sri Lankan prime minister in 2017, affirming that all major international shipping organizations believed Sri Lanka should work with the United Nations to move its traffic lane.
“This is one of the few cases in the world where we can physically separate ships from where the whales are,” Wood-Thomas said. “Yes, it adds a little distance, fuel and money to shipping costs, but the extra cost is really minor.”
He said it was no small feat to get the majority of the world’s shipping companies to agree to move the shipping lane in Sri Lanka.
“There are other places in the world where doing this would incur significant fuel costs or add a lot of time to the journey that businesses will not be happy to absorb,” he said.
For a shipping lane to be moved, the country whose waters are most affected must submit a formal proposal to the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency that regulates shipping. Despite numerous meetings between scientists, the shipping industry and U.N. officials during the past six years, Sri Lankan officials have demurred from supporting the shipping lane shift.
Rear Adm. Rohana Perera of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority said the government is concerned about the economic impact of the proposed shipping lane move on its ports, fearing passing ships might not be as inclined to stop in Sri Lanka. He said a decision would “hopefully” be made in March.