8th June 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka – World Oceans Day is celebrated across the globe on June 8th each year. It celebrates the wonder of the ocean and its life-giving qualities. This year, World Oceans Day has special significance as it celebrates 30 years since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – UNCLOS, one of the most important pieces of legislation protecting the integrity of the world’s oceans was established. Dilmah Conservation, established in 2007 as the conservation extension of the MJF Charitable Foundation, has a comprehensive Marine Conservation programme to address salient issues related to ocean that surrounds this island nation.
Dilmah’s Marine Conservation programme currently carries out research on the Kayankerni Reef in the Eastern seaboard of Sri Lanka. It represents a relatively undisturbed marine environment, due to its inaccessible status during the now concluded war, with an abundance of associated marine life. Located in the Northern reaches of the Vanderloos Bay in the vicinity of the Thennadi Bay and Welikuda, Periyamunei, various marine habitats ranging from shallow staghorn coral beds to deep coral domes, and steep reef slopes dot this area. The aim of the ongoing research activities carried out in partnership with the Ocean Resources Conservation Association – ORCA is to document the status of the reef including its species and to create a platform to upgrade its conservation status as a marine sanctuary in the near future.
Dilmah Conservation has also embarked on programme to conserve the dugong, classified as ‘Vulnerable to Extinction’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Although data on dugong distribution and numbers is limited, they were reported to be both abundant and widely distributed in the shallow sea off Sri Lanka up until the late in the 20th century. However over the past 30 years, dugong populations have declined dramatically and sightings are now rare in most areas of Sri Lanka.
In view of the status of the dugong and the importance of conserving it, Sri Lanka became a signatory to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and Their Habitats throughout their Range (Dugong MOU) in early 2012. The MOU operates under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).
The UNEP/CMS Office – Abu Dhabi is currently working with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, IUCN Sri Lanka and Dilmah Conservation to implement preliminary work on conserving the dugong.
During the surveys carried out to gather data on dugong distribution, abundance, and their ‘hotspots’ and main threats particularly from incidental capture by net fisheries, several important factors relating to dugongs have been unearthed. The surveys show that in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, coastal communities are able to identify and have sighted live or dead dugongs during the past decade.
The results also indicate that prior to the early 1970’s, before the dugong in Sri Lanka was declared as a protected species under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), there existed an active dugong fishery, the animals being caught using specially fashioned “dugong nets” and occasionally dynamite. The carcass or live animal was transported by rail to Colombo’s St. John fish market, where the live animals were slaughtered and sold.
More projects are planned with the aim of facilitating national and trans-boundary action on conservation of dugongs and their habitats, enhancing regional collaboration and finding incentives to change towards more dugong-friendly practices. As such Dilmah conservation has taken the initiative to protect fragile marine ecosystem and its diverse fauna and flora through its Marine Conservation programme.
The Marine Conservation programme is part of a broad commitment by Dilmah Conservation to sustainability. That commitment is founded on the philosophy of making business a matter of human service that Founder of Dilmah Tea, Merrill J. Fernando formed as a core element of his pioneering business. The environmental interventions of Dilmah Conservation www.dilmahconservation.org are complemented by a humanitarian effort that is also made possible by earnings from Dilmah Tea and implemented by parallel entity, the MJF Charitable Foundation www.mjffoundation.org