Muscat: Endangered humpback whales in the Arabian Sea have more chances of survival as Port of Duqm Company (PDC), a joint venture project between the Omani Government and Antwerp Port, plans to protect the marine mammals from “deadly” ship collisions.
Officials said the port’s new whale management and mitigation plan will help monitor the presence of whales in close proximity to shipping operations and avert possible collisions or disturbance to animals moving in the south central waters of the Sultanate.
The initiative at the port is the first of its kind in the region and one of few such schemes in the world.
“There are some very clear wins that can be made by communicating simple instructions to our clients,” Reggy Vermeulen, CEO of the PDC told the Times of Oman (TOO).
“Speed can be the biggest killer of whales, and the best scientific evidence suggests that ships travelling at 10 knots or less have significantly diminished chance of striking and killing a whale,” he said.
“We recommend to all vessels passing into the outer approach channels to Duqm Port to take this corrective action, and immediately report any whales they see, to port control.”
The strategy has been designed in consultation with cetacean scientists from a local environmental consultancy firm Five Oceans Environmental Services (FOES).
Besides ship strikes, Oman’s Arabian Sea Humpback Whales (ASHW) face the risk from being entangled in fishing nets, habitat loss due to growing development,water and noise pollution.
The ecology of humpback whales in the Arabian Sea remained somewhat of a mystery until scientists from FOES led by Rob Baldwin and Andy Willson, working with the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) and an international team of experts, revealed that not only was Oman’s humpback whale the only non-migratory whale of its kind in the world, it was also one of the world’s most endangered.
Detailed studies have uncovered the whales’ favourite habitats in Omani waters.
“When members of the ESO approached the port to inform them about critical whale habitat in the Gulf of Masirah included the area around the Port, we realised this was an issue we had to act on immediately,” said Vermeulen, adding “And satellite tracking studies in the last two years have confirmed the continued presence of whales in the area.”
Officials said the first phase of the project was launched earlier this year, when information and guidelines were provided to shipping agents and all vessels prior to their arrival.
The second, more detailed phase of PDCs whale management project is now underway.
PDC is, meanwhile, developing a robust IT framework so that information on whales detected in the area can be integrated into the port’s vessel traffic monitoring system.
The company has financed commissioning of a management plan, training of staff in its implementation and integration into the daily operations.
Tracking whale movements
“The solution we are working on at the moment allows whale sightings to be plotted on the same screen as vessel traffic movements in the area. Alerts are provided to vessel captains and trained PDC staff will respond according to a detailed response procedure,” explained Rob Baldwin, director of Five Oceans, who started his career studying whales in the Sultanate back in 1990.
“This will enable port control to monitor whale movements, avoid collisions with whales, and reduce stress on them,” he said.
Baldwin said the reporting system will also build a clearer picture of whale movement, behaviour and seasonality, which could be used to further improve whale management.
There is, however, a growing awareness of the need to address the conflicts between shipping and whales.
The International Maritime Organisation has produced a series of guidance documents aimed at reducing ship strikes, and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has a committee dedicated to keeping records of strikes and exchanging methods for mitigation.
“The work of the PDC is commendable given that as yet there are only a handful of ports in the world implementing such proactive procedures for whale strike reduction,” David Matilla of the IWC Scientific Committee told the TOO.
“We look forward to following the developments of this project over the coming years,” he said.
According to IWC, there are five official ship strike records from the Arabian Sea over the last 10 years and also additional records of a number of animals stranded on beaches that look to have been impacted by ships.
IWC believes there is a significant amount of shipping traffic off the coast of Oman running between the straits of Hormuz and the Gulf Aden and as yet more work needs to be done to understand the potential impact of these routes on whale populations.
Oman-based Senior Marine Consultant, Andy Willson told the TOO that the whale management scheme launched by PDC recognises findings of international expertise on the threats of fast moving ships within high density whale habitat and is taking proactive steps before their activities scale up and ahead of any such incidences being reported.
“Losing just a few whales with such a small number of whales can have population level consequences,” he said.