CITES CoP18 kicks off in Sri Lanka on trade of endagered species

Geneva, 12 February 2019 – In exactly 100 days from today, the 183 Parties to CITES (182 countries + the European Union) will gather at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for the next World Wildlife Conference – the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP18) to be held from 23 May to 3 June.

A record 107 working documents and 57 species listing proposals reflect the massive interest from across the globe in the conservation and sustainable use of wild fauna and flora. With a 20% increase in the number of agenda items, CoP18 is set to be the largest meeting of the Conference of the Parties in the history of CITES.

CITES Secretary-General, Ivonne Higuero, said: “The ever-growing level of interest in CITES demonstrates the confidence of the world’s governments in this Convention. It also clearly demonstrates the Parties’ aim to implement CITES as a mechanism to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as it equally pays attention to environmental, social and economic sustainability. Parties to CITES are also showing their will to recalibrate the focus of the Convention in a bid to strike a better balance between the effective regulation of international trade in species of wild animals and plants and efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, which has gained global support from all levels in the past few years. For example, the proposed strengthening of legality and sustainability findings, the proposals for better coordinated capacity building efforts, including a Compliance Assistance Programme and a resolution on CITES Management Authorities, collectively contribute to the former. The CITES Strategic Vision for 2021 to 2030 is also high on the agenda”.

“The ever-widening gap of losing species due to multiple factors have jeopardized societal functions, economics and the well-being of the planet. Sri Lanka as an island nation is proactive to challenges and firmly believes on the need for global partnership to combat the threats and issues that affect us in achieving strategic outcomes of the SDGs, the Aichi targets and the CITES Strategic vision.

We are eagerly awaiting to host CoP18 and to showcase Sri Lanka’s commitment to sustainable livelihoods and species conservation. All arrangements are now in place to host a very successful conference,” said Minister of Tourism and Wildlife of Sri Lanka, John Amaratunga.

CoP18 preparations

Working documents are being posted on the CITES website as they become available. In the meantime, important preparatory meetings at international and regional levels as well as meetings focusing on specific issues are already underway before the 183 CITES Parties meet in May. Examples include the following:

A consultation meeting with stakeholders and member countries of the European Union was organized by the European Commission on 29 January to discuss positions to be taken by the EU with regard to the proposals on the CoP18 agenda. In addition, the 28 member countries of the EU will meet at least once a month in the run-up to CoP18.
The North America region will meet from 8 to 11 April 2019 in Victoria, Canada to coordinate positions on CITES CoP18 issues.
The Oceania region will meet in Samoa from 25 to 27 March to prepare for CoP18. The meeting is being facilitated by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). The CITES Secretariat will be present at the meeting to assist Parties in the region.
The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), led by the CITES Secretariat, is leading the preparation of the third global meeting of the world’s wildlife enforcement networks which will take place during CoP18.
Sri Lanka, the host country of CoP18, is organizing a Global Dialogue on Wildlife Trafficking from 15-16 March 2019 at the University of Colombo.
Several meetings on sharks and rays in relation to CoP18 will take place around the world from March to April 2019, including in Dominican Republic, Jordan, Maldives, Samoa and Senegal. These meetings are led by various CITES Parties and NGOs.
A few highlights on the CoP18 agenda

The agenda of CoP18 is rich and diverse. Many issues are recurrent themes for the meetings of CITES Parties as they require their ongoing attention, such as enforcement, capacity building and traceability as well as the conservation of, and trade in, elephants, rhinoceroses, big cats, sturgeons or agarwood.

CoP18 will consider 57 proposals to amend the CITES Appendices, which list the species that are subject to CITES trade controls, including proposals to add additional sharks, rays and timber species. Each of 3 proposals on sharks and rays was jointly submitted by over 50 countries, showing unprecedented support to list these marine species of high commercial value in CITES.

CoP18 will also address some difficult and contentious issues where divergent approaches exist amongst CITES Parties on matters, for example, trade in elephants and their ivory as well as rhino horn, with proposals on the table designed to further restrict commercial trade, and counter-proposals intending to remove trade restrictions.

Should CITES play a role in managing non-CITES-listed species? Some Parties think so. A striking number of working documents, as opposed to species-listing proposals, relate to a wide range of animals and plants that are not presently protected under the CITES, but for which there are trade-related concerns. These documents submitted by Parties propose to examine several large groups of species, such as all songbirds, all amphibians, all sharks and rays, all marine ornamental fish and all rosewood timber species, to assess if in one way or another, they could benefit from CITES trade controls.

A majority of “wild” animal and plants traded under CITES are now in fact not harvested from the wild when it comes to live animals and plants but bred in captivity or cultivated. Multiple documents for COP18 aim to address trade in animal and plant specimens from non-wild sources.

Wildlife crime will again be a significant matter of discussion at the meeting, including how to better respond to and address corruption, wildlife crime linked to the Internet, the use of forensic applications in the field of wildlife crime, and others. CoP18 will also consider a proposal on the establishment of a database for the storage and management of illegal trade data collected through CITES annual illegal trade reports, as a potential accessible and powerful tool to inform the decision making of Parties and support the development of appropriate law enforcement responses to wildlife crime.

The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) will convene several events in the margins of CoP18, including in relation to the launch of an Integrity Guide for Wildlife Management Agencies, the second World Wildlife Crime Report and capacity established by INTERPOL to support the efforts of Parties in addressing wildlife crime linked to the Internet. ICCWC will also convene the third global meeting of the world’s wildlife enforcement networks, whilst the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group will convene its 30th meeting.

Human wellbeing is addressed through the issue of sustainable use of wildlife and livelihoods of rural communities with topics such as CITES and livelihoods, food security, establishment of the rural communities committee and participatory mechanism for rural communities. Such discussions will also be relevant with regard to the trade in, for examples, eels, queen conch and bushmeat which are primarily used as food.

Why is the CITES CoP called the World Wildlife Conference?

Ever wondered why the CITES CoP is also called the World Wildlife Conference? It is because the Plenipotentiary Conference, held from 12 February to 2 March 1973 in Washington D.C. where Convention was concluded, was called the World Wildlife Conference. We are keeping that tradition alive!

Sri Lanka is ready for a great CoP18

In hosting CoP18 Sri Lanka has the opportunity to showcase for the world its unique and wonderful wildlife as well as its many conservation successes.

This will be the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES in South Asia since CoP3 held in New Delhi, India in 1981. It will also be the second CoP to be held in an island country.

“Sri Lanka’s resolve towards eradication of the menace of illegal trade of endangered species is well documented and we remain firmly committed to the protection of all species. As a marine and biological hotspot in the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka is proud to be only the second island nation to host CITES CoP. The fact that the meeting in Sri Lanka is carbon sensitive also shows our commitment to the environment. We look forward to showcasing to the CoP participants our tourism assets, such as our wildlife parks that are home to thousands of elephants, our seas that are teeming with whales and dolphins, our forests that are home to many endangered species, our wetlands, mangroves, botanical gardens among our many other wonders,” said Minister Amaratunga.

“The discussions at CoP18 will have a significant impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, especially when viewed in the context of the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. We sincerely hope to have the pleasure of welcoming you in Colombo next May and supporting all stakeholders to achieve progress in meeting global biodiversity commitments”, added Higuero.

The Secretary-General is invited to join the Minister of Tourism and Wildlife to plant trees at a forest in the Nilgala region one day before CoP18 which will be declared as the “CITES Forest” to mark CoP18.


Stilt Fishing Srilanka’s Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

WELIGAMA, SRI LANKA — A few dozen meters from the shoreline, fisherman T. H. Sena sits motionless on a wooden stilt, waiting for tourists to come and pose for pictures. A picture in return for money.

Stilt fishing is a recent innovation, first adopted just after World War II when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots prompted people to try fishing further out on the water. Two generations of fishermen have eked out this physically demanding existence at dawn and dusk along a 30-kilometer stretch of southern shore between the towns of Unawatuna and Weligama.

Since the tsunami in 2004, however, this mode of fishing has declined drastically as a livelihood in of itself and has now become more of a tourist attraction with the help of the government of Sri Lanka, which promotes it as an attraction. Many of the true stilt fisherman have taken up farming, or reselling fish purchased at larger markets.

For stilt fishing, a vertical pole with an attached crossbar is embedded into the sea floor among the shallows or on a riverbed. The crossbar allows the fishermen to be seated a couple of meters above the water, causing minimal shadows on the water and therefore little to no disturbance among the sea life. The stilt fishermen then uses a rod from this position to bring in a good catch from the comparative shallows of the sea or from the river.

During monsoons, these fishermen catch fish on boats and sometimes on stilts too and later sell them in markets. And, for the rest of the year, they pose for pictures for tourists. The money collected from tourists is divided into equal parts among the fishermen, with a share also going to the tour operator who brings the tourists to the shore.

In 2009, the year in which the 26-year-long civil war came to an end in Sri Lanka, tourist arrivals numbered about 448,000. In 2017, tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka reached an all-time high of 2,116,407.

“We need to make a living out of something,” fisherman T. H. Sena said.


Sri Lanka’s experts reveal their secrets

Think of tea and you may have an image of Earl Grey or English Breakfast, cool peppermint or health-inducing green tea. But there are so many varieties available.

In Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, tea production has been a way of life for more than 150 years. The humidity, cool temperatures and rainfall in the country’s central highlands provide the best climate for high-quality tea production.

Although tea plantations now cover 4% of the Indian Ocean island, until the 1860s, its main crop had been coffee. When coffee rust fungus killed most of the coffee plants in 1869, estate owners had to diversify.

They used plants brought from India, which thrived in the crisp, damp air of the central highlands.

The Virgin White Tea Plantation in Handunugoda near Galle, in the southern province, specialises in the production of the world’s most sought-after speciality teas, such as Sapphire Oolong, Lapsang Souchong, Flowery Camellia tea and the most highly-prized Virgin White tea.

Virgin White Tea

The Virgin White Tea of Handunugoda is the only white tea in the world that is untouched by hand. Production follows an ancient Chinese ritual where the mandarins employed virgins to cut the tea with golden scissors and collect leaves in a golden bowl. Only the emperor’s lips touched the tea.

Pickers have to wear gloves and use special scissors to cut the leaves, to avoid the leaf being tarnished. It has 10.11% antioxidants, the highest known antioxidant content in any tea.

At no time do the hands of the pluckers touch the buds, and once picked, the leaves are dried using only filtered sunlight.

Just 120kg of Virgin White tea is produced a year (10kg a month). At Handunugoda, it is sold for $1,500 US dollars per kilo. You can also buy it from Mariage Frères (; €68 for 20g) in Paris, the most exclusive tea salon in the world, or directly from the Virgin White Tea Plantation (; $36 US dollars for 10 teabags).

And other teas? How are they processed?

Only the topmost buds and two leaves are picked to ensure freshness in a process known as ‘fine plucking’, then leaves are spread out on ‘withering troughs’ to make them pliable and remove excess moisture. They are then rolled in a machine which crushes them and triggers fermentation. Finally, the leaves are dried, sifted and graded.

Loose tea or teabags – what’s best?

Herman Gunaratne, owner of the Handunugoda Estate, says: “There is no problem with teabags. However, if you take into account the high cost of the teabag and string, then a good tea becomes more costly for the consumer. But if you have 25 teas and one is made with a teabag, I can distinctly get the taste of paper.”

Should you drink it with or without milk?

“When tea became a fashionable drink, the techniques of manufacture were not so highly developed. In order to mask the harshness of the tea, they first added milk. When that didn’t make too much of an improvement, they added sugar.”

But the techniques of production have improved over the years. Good tea should be drunk without milk, Herman says.

What’s the correct brewing technique?

“The ideal tea is made with one teaspoon per cup. Heat the water until the first bubbles are appearing, then stop. Pour it. Let it steep for five minutes. Then drink.”

How to get there

Hannah Stephenson stayed at Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort and Spa, Sri Lanka ( Room rates are from US$293 (approx. £219) per night, based on double occupancy.


Tropical depression threatens flooding across Sri Lanka

The last week or so has seen torrential downpours across southern parts of the Bay of Bengal.

Southern India and Sri Lanka have both been badly affected and there has been some flooding.

The daily downpours look set to continue into the weekend.

On Wednesday morning, Sri Lanka’s Department of Meteorology announced that a tropical depression had formed just to the southeast of the country.

It is expected to strengthen for a time as it moves along the southern coast. Warnings have been issued for heavy rain, rough seas and strong winds. Gusts of over 60 kilometres per hour are expected.

This brings the inevitable risk of further flooding and the potential for mudslides.

Recent rainfall has been particularly heavy across the eastern half of the country with the northeasterly monsoon bringing plenty of moist air in from the Bay of Bengal.

Trincomalee in the Eastern Province had 57mm of rain the 24 hours up to 0600GMT on Tuesday.

Nearby, Batticoloa began the week with 107mm of rain in the same space of time. That amounted to almost a third of the November average rainfall of 340mm.

Meanwhile, Nuwara Eliya in the tea country hills of central Sri Lanka recorded 92mm of rain on Tuesday. Much of the island can expect 25 to 75mm of rain over the next day or two with the close proximity of the potential cyclone.

Southern and eastern parts of the country are likely to see the heaviest downpours with daily totals approaching 150mm in places.

The rain should ease by Sunday as the tropical disturbance moves into the Arabian Sea.

Any respite from the heavy rain is likely to be short-lived as another tropical system developing near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands may arrive as early as Thursday.

Sri Lanka Disaster Management Center (DMC) Wednesday warned of adverse weather with possible landslides as heavy rains are expected to lash the country for the next few days.

The DMC issuing an alert at 15:30 local time said low pressure area in the vicinity of Sri Lanka has developed in to a depression and hence heavy rains and gusty winds of around 60 kmph can be expected over the island.

The Meteorology Department issuing a weather alert said the low pressure area in the vicinity of Sri Lanka has developed in to a depression and it is expected to develop further and move away from the island along the southern coast.

“Hence, heavy rains, strong winds and rough seas can be expected further in the deep and shallow sea areas around the island and heavy rains and gusty strong winds (about 60) kmph over the island.”

Showers or thundershowers will occur most parts of the island and very heavy falls of above 150mm can be expected at some places in the Southern, Sabaragamuwa, Central and Western province. Heavy falls (above 100 mm) can be expected at some places elsewhere, the Met Department said.

“Very heavy rains, very strong winds and very rough seas can be expected further in the deep and shallow sea areas around the island,” the Meteorology Department said urging the naval and fishing communities to refrain from naval activities in the sea off the country.

Spokesman for the Disaster Management Center, Pradeep Kodippili people are warned of floods in the areas with rivers and landslides in the mountainous areas.

The National Building Research Organization (NBRO) issued an alert on possibility of landslides in Matale district and Medadumbara divisional secretariat division and surrounding areas in Kandy district.

In a warning issued at 3:00 p.m. Wednesday NBRO urged the public in the affected districts, if the rains continue, to be watchful on the possibility of landslides, slope failures, rock falls, cutting failures and ground subsidence since the rainfall within the past 24 hours has exceeded 75mm.


Beira Lake Intervention Area Development Plan launched

Nov 28, Colombo: Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Patali Champika Ranawaka Monday launched the Beira Lake Intervention Area Development Plan which aims to restore the Beira Lake and turn it into the most scenic asset of Colombo by 2035.

Subsequent to the launch, the Beira Lake area will now be referred to as Ranmasu Pura.

The launching ceremony was held at JAIC Hilton Colombo, yesterday morning, with the participation of Singaporean experts facilitating the project, officials of the Urban Development Authority and other stakeholders.

The proposed zoning plan of the Urban Development Authority hopes to get the optimum economic value of the area and realize the highly livable and economically vibrant megapolis that the government has envisioned for the nation.

The financial support to the proposed zoning plan will be provided by the World Bank. The plan proposes to develop lands in the immediate vicinity of Beira Lake for hotels and tourism activities. Lands located near Vauxhall Street are to accommodate a leisure park for the public.

Addressing the gathering Minister Ranawaka said the Beira Lake area which was once a glorious economic hub in the country turned into an area full of anti-social activities.

The development plan hopes to clear away all nearby slum dwellings and control the chaos which prevails around the area and create a picturesque place for both locals and tourists.

The Ranmasu Pura Development Plan, prepared under the guidance of the Centre for Livable Cities Singapore. Singapore Corp. Enterprises Ltd., and Temasek Foundation and participation of Urban Development Authority officials will be implemented in five categories.

The plan will improve all lands around the Beira Lake to a higher level of productivity, control all practices that pollute the Beira Lake, plan the proposed development by safeguarding the natural environment, open and develop the lake Reserve to enable the locals and the foreigners to reach Beira Lake and to improve the facilities available for entertainment purposes, and enhance opportunities for local people to improve their income sources and promote economic progress.

Accordingly, Special Regulations have been prepared for the identified area under the Ranmasu Pura project.

The main object is to develop the Multimodal Transport Hub at Fort/Pettah area where the Beira Lake vicinity will become an important part.

We have already called for proposals from investors for the first step of this Multimodal Transport Hub and the second stage of the project will start in 2018,” Minister Ranawaka said.

“By 2023, we will establish the Light Railway, the elevated highway and modernized railway facility, all of which will be interconnected with the proposed Multimodal Transport Hub.”

The area surrounding Beira Lake, which will be directly connected with this hub, will also be developed as the main economic area connecting with the Port City project, Minister Ranawaka added.

Minister Ranawaka said land development is the most important part of this project. There are lands owned by several government agencies and there is more land which belongs to both the government and private individuals or companies. Most of the government agencies, such as the Ports Authority and Lanka Sathosa, have agreed to release their lands for the proposed project. The Beira Lake Intervention Area Development Plan includes the systematic strategy to develop all these lands. The first stage of such land development will begin by 2018, he said.

Minister Ranawaka while pointing out that the people living in Vauxhall area will be moving out willingly to make space for the development project, commended President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for allocating Rs. 1300 million for the relocation program of the people. He also observed that this allocation expedited the Beira Lake development project.

Minister Ranawaka expressed his confidence that the development project will turn the Beira Lake area into a resource-park and a wealth-center which will become a gold mine that contributes the most to the development of the country.


Sri Lanka Tourism promotion in Oslo

Nov 27, Colombo: The Embassy of Sri Lanka in Oslo held a very successful tourism promotion event on 22nd November 2017 at the Mission premises.

Leading travel agents, travel operators, renowned travel writers and travel journalists, representatives of major airlines servicing Sri Lanka as well as travel and tourism fair organizers were invited to the event.

After the presentations that highlighted the attractions in Sri Lanka as a worthy destination for Norwegian and Nordic tourists, the Ambassador hosted the invitees to a traditional Sri Lankan dinner.

Welcoming the guests, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Oslo, Jayantha Palipane spoke of the importance of the growth of the tourist industry, friendly welcome that awaits tourists and the variety of attractions that Sri Lanka offers. Ambassador Palipane mentioned of his efforts to see a steady increase of Norwegian tourists visiting Sri Lanka.

Mr. Ajith Benjamin and Mr. Dilshan Sirisena of Butterfly Vacations made a detailed presentation on the attractions, the manner of serving the needs of the tourists and foreign tour operators, as well as the easy way of booking a good tour to Sri Lanka.

Mr. Kenneth Cai of BeCuriou, a leading tour operator in Oslo and Mr. Terje Mykelbost, a well-known Norwegian travel writer and editor were also invited to share their experiences in Sri Lanka.

4th Floor
Sjølyst Plass 2
0278 Oslo

Consular Services
Monday – Friday from 9.00 am to 12:30 pm
Phone: +47 23 13 69 50
Fax: +47 23 31 70 90


Sri Lanka to modernize railway sector

COLOMBO, Nov. 28 2017 Sri Lanka will modernize its age old railway sector by purchasing over 100 new railway carriages and engines, and developing railway stations, Transport Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, quoted by state media, said on Tuesday.

De Silva said this will also help the government to strengthen the country’s public transportation sector as a majority of Sri Lankans depended on public transport on a daily basis.

The minister said these plans were part of the Colombo suburban railway project which is to be funded by the Asian Development Bank(ADB).
Under this plan, the Transport and Civil Aviation Ministry together with Sri Lanka Railways will construct new parallel railway lines and modernize railway stations.

New railway lines will also be put in place to connect the capital Colombo to the Bandaranaike International Airport.
Thousands of tourists who visit Sri Lanka per year depend on Sri Lanka’s railway sector to explore many areas of the island.


Know your enemy – it’s not Facebook, it’s you

By Chathuri Dissanayake

Facebook is not the enemy, said Manoj Jinadasa, senior lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication in the University of Kelaniya.

Lack of computer literacy, communication and breakage in family relationships were the real causes for the current surge in new media-related tragedies.

“New media is a tool in modern society and should be treated as such,” he said.

Sri Lanka had not been ready for the accelerated spread of new media usage over the past five years, said Mr. Jinadasa. This had triggered a heightened number of psychological issues.

According to research carried out by Mr. Jinadasa the most vulnerable users of social media are teenagers followed by young adults aged 20- 25 years.

“Most teenagers now lack a proper social life: their lives are focused on exams. There is hardly any communication in their relationships. These individuals are further isolated as the new media interactions are one-on-one,” said Mr. Jinadasa.

Lack of awareness about personal security on cyber platforms was the cause for many new media-related problems, says Roshan Chandraguptha, Information Security Engineer at Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Response Team.

“Out of all incidents reported last year the majority of the incidents were related to security on the internet,” Mr. Chandraguptha said.
“Users should understand that they should be careful about sharing their personal information just like in normal day-to-day social interactions where we do not share personal information with strangers,” he said.

Dinithi Jaysekara, lecturer at the University of Kelaniya pointed out most of the respondents in a research she conducted publicly displayed personal information and a large percentage of users publicly listed their mobile number and e-mail address.
The research was conducted among university students, who have higher computer literacy.

“This research shows they are not much concerned about safeguarding their privacy on Facebook,” she said highlighting the need for awareness.

“In Western countries media literacy is built into the school curriculum. This should be done here too,” said Mr. Jinadasa.

“Students from a young age should be taught how to productively engage in new media. At the same time, personality development should be looked into if we are to prevent the kind of psychological problems that are arising in teenagers engaging in new media.”


India, Sri Lanka finalizing plans to restart ferry service

Feb 19 2016, New Delhi: India and Sri Lanka have mooted to resume a ferry service from Kochi to Colombo to enhance the ties between the two countries and are in the process of finalizing the ways the service should be offered, according to a report in New Indian Express.

“The ferry service is mooted between Kochi in Kerala to Colombo. We are finalizing the modalities and working out if it would be purely a passenger service. To make it economically viable, we will include freight service,” an official of India’s Ministry of External Affairs was quoted as saying.

According to the report, the three-decade long ethnic strife in Sri Lanka had adversely impacted its ties with India and after the 1983 ethnic cleansing of Tamils in Sri Lanka, over 100,000 Tamil refugees had landed in Tamil Nadu, triggering a sympathy wave in the state and severing the sea link from Chennai although the air-link between the two countries remained.

In 2011, a ferry service was resumed between Thoothukudi in south Tamil Nadu to Colombo, but it was stopped due to less traffic.
There has been demand to revive the links between Tamil Nadu and the Tamil-speaking north and north-eastern part of Sri Lanka Jaffna and Trincomalee. “Considering the political sensitivities around the revival of the transport links, we would like to go one step at a time,” the official added.
Ferries are one of the cheapest modes of transport and will be within the framework of increasing connectivity under the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) regional forum


Saving the world, one whale shark at a time

(Op-ed by Ms. Francoise Jacob, Director and Representative of the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives In light of World Oceans Day 8th June ).
A couple of months ago, while underwater just a few miles off the coast of Colombo, I had a chance encounter with an extraordinary being. As we meandered in and out of a coral-covered wreck, this gigantic creature appeared from the dark depth, a massive whale shark with dozens of little fish swimming gracefully by its side, like a king moving with his court.

The shark stayed with us for almost 40 minutes. He kept circling us, coming closer and closer, shifting on its side to watch us, seemingly loving the attention, the bubbles and all the camera work going on around him. Eventually we had to leave it because of our own body’s limitations to sustain such depth.

At some point, the shark and us got swallowed in a huge and swirling school of small yellow fish, abundant and joyful. Honestly, this was one of the most overwhelming moments I have experienced in a long time. I was crying in my mask, and I was not the only one. The diver next to me was just as emotional.

Most of us, the 7 billion humans, actually never see what is underwater. No wonder we don’t care enough about it, despite the fact that life began in the seas, and the Planet is sustained by the oceans. We forget that climate and weather systems depend on the temperature patterns of the ocean and its interactions with the atmosphere. We ignore that oceans absorb carbon dioxide, and as we emit more, the oceans also absorb more. This results in acidification of the waters, which in turn, damages different types of life. We vaguely know that warm waters kill corrals, but we don’t know why this is so dramatic, and anyway, it’s only the Great Barrier Reef way out in Australia, right?

At the same time, because of the immensity of the oceans, we get tricked into thinking that we can throw anything into it, and catch as much as we want from it without any significant consequences. Every so often we hear of a “disaster”, such as the recent oil spill off the port of Colombo last week, or the unexplained millions of dead fish that washed on the Mullaitivu beach a few days ago. We read about collective suicides where 300 whales have beached themselves and died for an unknown reason.

But it does not quite affect us, and we move on. Plenty more under, isn’t there?

When you dive, you suddenly become much more aware about 2 things: the underwater world is a magical, colourful and incredibly bountiful world. And we, the humans, are causing extensive and relentless damages to this vital resource: the massive overfishing around the globe; the spillages from the gigantic urban settlements, from coastal industries or commercial ships, the polluted discharges from rivers with fertilizer runoffs; the trash litter on the ocean floor, the fish and birds dying from swallowing plastics or getting entangled in them – by 2050 the sea could contain more plastic than fish by weight, according to research done for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In Sri Lanka, fish caught in the nets are getting smaller and smaller, yet the number of fishing boats have expanded dramatically in the past 12 years in both the coastal seas and the high seas. Half of the harvest in Sri Lanka is for exports, a revenue stream that creates a strong incentive for more fishing. Yet fleets in large harbours such as Negombo are already affected, as the cost of operations topple the revenues from harvest. And a good chunk of that harvest is wasted on a daily basis due to poor handling. Around the world, 30% of the fish species are already harvested beyond their sustainability level, which means the related fish stock is shrinking. Add to this the pollution on the coastal areas, which serve as reproduction and nursery grounds for many ocean species, and the warming up of waters which forces some species to move closer to the poles. You start to get the picture of what’s coming up if we don’t react, as individuals, as countries, and as humanity?

The good news is that there is still a lot we can do to reverse this process, while achieving the targets set under Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14 Life Below Water).

International treaties and calls for action are important, because they open the path for countries to reframe their own national jurisdictions, policies and regulations. Although it seems sometimes like more bureaucracy, global treaties have been successful in advancing human rights, and tackling global issues such as the depletion of the ozone layer. Sri Lanka is part of many such agreements including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Beyond the work done at country level, the role and impact of coastal cities and settlements are becoming more evident. As seen last week in the wake of the US announcement on its withdrawal from the Paris agreement, cities or even coalition of cities have committed to stick to the COP 21 commitments, or even outdo them. Municipal councils, along with regulatory bodies, have a key role to play in ensuring that pollution of all kinds is addressed and curbed immediately.

A most critical and sensitive issue is how Sri Lanka manages and regulates its High Seas and large Marine Ecosystems, and how it regulates fishing and other economic activities in its surrounding waters and within the Exclusive Economic Zone (which is 7 times the size of the country!). Enforcement of regulations in both national and international waters is just as critical for fish stock as it is to peace, to avoid the multiplication of incidents between local and foreign fleets. Monitoring of fish stocks both in coastal areas and in deep waters has started in a more systematic matter, and it is hoped that action will follow to adjust and redress negative trends.

The private sector has an equally critical responsibility and role to play in the sustainability equation. In particular, large export oriented fishing companies, or high polluting industries. There again, a combination of systematic enforcement of regulations by the appropriate government bodies, and of pro-active, responsible exploitation by the private sector will be required to turn the tide. The tourism industry in all its shape must play a very essential role of containing, and then reducing pollution, limiting overcrowding of natural sites, and ensuring the quality and sustainability of its supply chains. The same apply to the agri business, to reduce the fertilizer and pesticide pollution.

Last, not least, it is YOU, and me, all of us humans, who can make the biggest difference in restoring the oceans to their best natural state. By changing our behaviours and habits, by lobbying with our politicians, by informing our children, by setting trends in our offices, by supporting community led initiatives, there are so many ways we can contribute.

On June 8, we celebrate World Oceans Day. It cannot be a perfunctory celebration any longer.

In Sri Lanka, the United Nations works on key areas around fisheries, marine infrastructure, marine pollution, bio-diversity, treaty implementation.

The United Nations is organising a high level conference on June 5 to June 9 at the UN Headquarters in New York: the ‘Ocean Conference’ is expect to draw support to the implementation of SDG 14: conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

The conference will adopt by consensus a concise, focused, inter-governmentally agreed declaration in the form of a ‘Call for Action’ to support the implementation of SDG 14 and a report containing the co-chairs’ summaries of the partnership dialogues, as well as a list of voluntary commitments for the implementation of Goal 14. Sri Lanka is one of the countries that will provide very substantial input in the conference.

Let this not be just an exercise for diplomats!

As I watched the shark watching me, I knew at that moment that his life was just as important as mine to keep this beautiful planet alive. And I knew that I have to step up my own work to protect this underworld. So I am asking you here again to take small steps every single day and contribute to saving the planet and its amazing diversity. There are many things we can do as individuals and as voters, such as banning plastic in our lifestyle, reducing our consumption of fish and meat, ride a bike to work, consume mindfully and lead a more simple life in tune with Nature. Please, don’t underestimate your own power to contribute and make life changing and planet saving decisions!

About the Writer:

Ms. Francoise Jacob is the Director and Representative of United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives and is based in Colombo. She is a passionate environmentalist who continues to champion individual responsibilities to safeguard our planet and the oceans, and also an avid diver.