World’s largest container line is rerouting its fleet to avoid collisions with endangered blue whales

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The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) has taken an important step to protect blue whales and other cetaceans that live and feed in the waters off the coast of Sri Lanka by altering shipping lanes to avoid their habitat.

MSC, a global leader in container shipping and logistics, began voluntarily diverting its ships passing Sri Lanka to a new course some 15 nautical miles south in mid-2022, in line with advice from scientists and other key players in the maritime Sector.

The decision was based on research surveys conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) with the World Trade Institute (WTI), the Biosphere Foundation, the University of Ruhuna (Sri Lanka) and supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Westbound vessel traffic is now restricted to a latitude between 05 30N and 05 35N and eastbound traffic is restricted to a latitude between 05 24N and 05 29N to avoid designated cetacean habitats.

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

The area off its southern coast is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and is also inhabited by large populations of whales, meaning these animals are at risk of colliding with ships.

Simulations have shown that moving the official shipping route 15 nautical miles south could reduce the risk of blue whale strikes by a whopping 95%. However, despite years of advocacy by scientists, the shipping industry and non-governmental organizations, the boundaries of the official shipping line have not been reassigned to reduce the risk of ship attacks on whales.

MSC is now taking serious action to protect marine wildlife, from adjusting shipping networks to keep designated whale breeding and feeding areas away, to reducing ship speeds and diverting ships to avoid reported populations of marine wildlife.

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“We believe that merchant shipping has an important role to play in protecting whales, particularly in reducing the risk of ship collisions with whales,” said Stefania Lallai, MSC vice president of sustainability.

“MSC is proud to be at or near the top of the whale safety shipping rankings. However, we are by no means complacent. We believe raising awareness of these issues and fostering collaboration between industry, academia, civil society and governments is crucial as we collectively strive to do more to minimize the risk of ship strikes.”

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In Sri Lanka in particular, the liner shipping industry, led by the World Shipping Council, of which MSC is a member, has been pushing to create a new official shipping system that is completely separate from the blue whale feeding grounds.

It is hoped that this will soon become a reality, so that all large-scale commercial shipping traffic will be shifted to the more southerly zone, which MSC vessels are now expected to follow. Meanwhile, MSC is urging all other ship operators to choose a more southerly route past Sri Lanka to significantly reduce the possibility of whale attacks.

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