MSC reroutes vessels to avoid whales

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by Emily Atkins

MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company is adjusting its ships routes in the waters around Sri Lanka to protect blue whales and other marine mammals.

The shipping line is sending its vessels  on a new course that is approximately 15 nautical miles to the south of the current traffic separation scheme (TSS) for commercial shipping as they pass by Sri Lanka.

MSC has followed guidance based on research by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), with the World Trade Institute (WTI), Biosphere Foundation, University of Ruhuna (Sri Lanka), Raja and the Whales and University of St Andrews (UK), and additionally endorsed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), to change the routing for its vessels.

Westbound ship traffic is now limited to a latitude between 05 30N and 05 35N, and eastbound traffic is limited to a latitude between 05 24N and 05 29N in order to avoid designated cetacean habitats.

An exception has been made for vessels embarking and disembarking for safety reasons in the Sri Lankan port of Galle, including in case of adverse weather. Additionally, smaller feeder ships sailing around the Bay of Bengal will reduce their speed to less than 10 knots in this area.

MSC said that while the deviation of ships to follow longer routes to protect marine habitats may slightly increase transit times for containerized goods and, consequently, add to fuel consumption, cetaceans themselves represent a valuable means of sequestering carbon.

95 percent reduction

The area off its southern coast is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and is also inhabited by large populations of cetaceans, meaning that these animals may be at risk of colliding with ships. Simulations have shown that moving the official shipping lane 15 nautical miles to the south could reduce the strike risk to blue whales by ask much as 95 percent. However, despite years of advocacy by scientists, the shipping industry and NGOs, the boundaries of the official shipping line have not been reassigned to reduce the risk of ship strikes on cetaceans.

MSC takes various measures to protect marine wildlife, from adapting shipping service networks to keep away from designated whale breeding and feeding grounds, to reducing vessel speed and re-routing ships to avoid reported marine wildlife populations. At the core of MSC’s approach is a desire to generate multilateral action in close collaboration with governments, industry bodies, academia and other dedicated organizations.

In January 2022, MSC was the first major shipping line to re-route its ships on the west coast of Greece to reduce the risk of collision with endangered sperm whales in the Mediterranean. According to NGOs such as IFAW, OceanCare, WWF Greece and the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, if all ship traffic using this area made a similar routing adjustment, the ship strike risk to sperm whales would be reduced by almost 75 percent.

“We believe that the commercial shipping sector has an important role to play in protecting cetaceans, specifically in helping to reduce the risk of ship collisions with whales,” said Stefania Lallai, vice-president sustainability at MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company.

“MSC is proud to rank at or near the top of whale safety shipping rankings. However, we are not at all complacent. We believe that raising awareness of these issues and encouraging collaboration between industry, scientific bodies, civil society and governments is essential as we strive collectively to do more to minimize the risk of ship strikes.”

Encouraging coordinated action

In Sri Lanka specifically, the World Shipping Council has advocated the creation of a new official marine traffic scheme that is fully separated from the blue whale feeding area. It is hoped that this will soon become a reality, so all large-scale commercial marine traffic moves to the more southerly zone that MSC ships are now guided to follow.

In the meantime, MSC urges all other ship operators to consider choosing a more southerly route past Sri Lanka, to significantly reduce the possibility of whale strikes.

Sri Lanka lies in the Indian Ocean, between Asia and Europe, and the port of Colombo is a major transshipment hub for global trade.