Protected Waters of Sri Lanka

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020 | Blog

The territorial waters of Sri Lanka extend 22km (12nm) beyond the coastline and cover an area of about 21,500km2. In addition, the country enjoys rights to an UNmandated ‘exclusive economic zone’ that extends outward 370km (200nm) from its shores and covers an area of about 510,000km². Besides having sovereign rights to resources in the water column, seabed and subsurface, Sri Lanka also has the exclusive right to authorize, regulate and control scientific research within this zone.

Since1979, these waters have been part of a protected zone or‘whale sanctuary’ declared by the International Whaling Commission (iwc). Protection was further extended to all marine mammals by the 38-nation Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation Organisation in 1994 and under Sri Lankan law by the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act of 1996.
In recent years, the Sri Lankan authorities have shown increased concern and activity over the welfare of corals, marine mammals and marine ecosystems. The Department of Wildlife, which is responsible for the protection of the fauna and flora of Sri Lanka, is legally mandated to create and administer marine sanctuaries, reserves and buffer zones. The Ministry of Fisheries also has the power to create sanctuaries for the conservation and development of fisheries and aquatic resources. At the time of writing there were 21 declared marine sanctuaries in Sri Lankan waters, mainly in the south and east (although the largest, Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary, is off Kalpitiya on the west coast). In addition, the coastlines adjacent to the Bundala, Ruhunu (Yala), Yala East (Kumana) and Wilpattu national park are protected zones.

Restrictions on entry and activity vary from one site to another: some are totally prohibited to unauthorised visitors, while at others entry requires a permit or licence. Checking with the appropriate authorities before planning a visit is highly recommended.

Two sites in Sri Lankan waters have been identified as ‘high regional priority areas’ by the Noaa/World Heritage Biodiversity Project of the World Conservation Union. These are Pigeon Island National Park, a coral island off Nilaveli, near Trincomalee, which hosts a breeding colony of blue rock pigeons, and the Gulf of Mannar Cluster’, comprising Palk Bay, Mannar Island and Adam’s Bridge, together with Dhanuskodi and Rameshwaram on the Indian coast.

Text by Howard Martenstyn, Out of the Blue