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Saturday January 28th, 2023

Strike Zone: Sri Lanka is a leading place for whales getting hit by ships

Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to glimpse large whales, especially charismatic sperm and blues. Unfortunately, it may also be one of the leading places for large whales getting maimed or killed by big, fast-moving ships.

In spring 2012, for example, a container ship steered into Colombo harbour bearing a blue whale carcass across its bow. Around the same time, another blue carcass was spotted floating just off the south coast.

A WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) web site reports five deadly ship strikes on blues and two on sperm whales in Lankan waters during 2011. The high danger lies in the fact that both ships and whales for their different reasons cruise at the continental shelf edge a few miles offshore.

In the name of reducing ship strike on whales, blues in particular, marine biologists have been studying factors that may lead to high blue concentrations in particular spots.

They are concentrated over ocean floor canyons—remnants of ancient river valleys when sea levels were lower—extending out from Lankan shores.

Down-drifting nutrients from decomposed plants, animals and animal waste continuously settle in these depths but sometimes come gushing to the surface through cold water ‘upwellings’ from down there.

These nutrient upwellings—just add sunlight—fuel phytoplankton blooms, which in turn feed outbreaks of krill and other pinkie-size crustaceans that blue whales specialize in gulping down.

Mapping is valuable as pure science of course, but one hopes also that identifying blue high-density zones could reduce ship strike by showing where shipping lanes could be re-routed or ships required to slow down.

Ship strike risk stems both from a collision/blunt trauma as with the 2012 Colombo harbour whale and from propeller laceration as with the one found floating in the south a few days later: whales too shallow beneath a passing ship may actually get sucked into the gouging blades.

Marine biologists speculate that for every blue whale ship strike recorded another ten go unrecorded because the carcasses sink or drift into the untraveled ocean.

Ship strikes are the most serious threat facing endangered blue whale numbers. Other experts downplay the ship strike threat, especially in light of other dangers blues confront. Even sceptics might concede, however, that high strike levels could undermine the viability of a blue population resident in Lankan waters.

It is more than a little puzzling why whales get hit rather than moving out of harm’s way. Large ships emit deafening engine and propeller noise. Sound carries better through water than through air.

Whale hearing is exceptionally acute, though their ears are hydrodynamically buried beneath a layer of skin. Whales may exhibit startle-flight responses even to the click of an underwater camera. Why don’t they hear ships coming and evade? It would seem that even the slowest swimmers should have plenty of warning and time.

We know very little at the moment but there are a number of possible explanations for this apparent heedlessness. All of them may be true at various times and places and some may also interact with one another.

Large adult whales have for millions of years had little to fear from loud noises or anything else. If it doesn’t sound like orcas (killer whales), great whites or colossal squid, any of which might rip into you or snag your juveniles, you probably don’t need to worry about it.

Evolution proceeds not only by developing body structures and behaviours with survival value but also by forgoing those with none. It disfavours wasting energy on absent dangers, energy that can be used instead for developing useful structures and behaviours.

For aeons until very recently, large whales have had no reason to maintain habits of avoiding noisy things, which might just as plausibly draw their curiosity. Unlike sudden noises that startle, approaching ships begin with a scarcely noticeable sound and build to a roar gradually.

The era of large fast-moving ships is little more than a hundred years old: a small handful of generations at most for whales. This is scant time for avoidance to emerge even as a learned behaviour, much less as an instinct.

Some suggest that whales could often be sleeping when struck, though this explanation stumbles over the fact that one whale brain hemisphere stays awake while the other sleeps: to maintain breathing, which in whales is not automatic as it is with us.

Whales may often simply be too preoccupied with what they are otherwise doing–feeding, playing, communicating, courting, mating, nursing–to notice ships bearing down on them.

In some places, moreover, there may be so many ships and so much ambient noise—some of it echoing off the seafloor and other objects both natural and human-made—that whales fail to isolate the source, proximity and direction of impending danger, accurately.

Especially chilling is the possibility that whales don’t hear approaching ships at all, despite the glaring racket. There may be at least three reasons for this. First is a possible ‘bow-null’ effect: the ship’s hull itself blocking engine and propeller noise, thereby creating an acoustic shadow directly ahead of the proceeding vessel.

Second is a possible refraction effect. Sound waves starting horizontally near the surface get bent and pulled downward by colder, denser water just below, where they propagate more efficiently. Noise, therefore, passes beneath whales at the surface until just before the ship is upon them.

Third, is a possible reflection effect sometimes called ‘Lloyd’s mirror.’ Sound waves generated slightly underwater may reach whales in a ship’s course by two different routes: directly and by reflection off the water/air boundary at the surface.

Until the ship is quite close, direct and reflected sound waves will reach the whale’s ear almost simultaneously because the distance travelled by the reflected wave up to the surface and back down to the whale will be small compared with the horizontal distance travelled.

Arriving simultaneously, direct and reflected sound waves are, however, 180 degrees out of phase with each other as they reach the whale’s ear. This is due to the fact that the reflected wave has bounced off the surface en route. In this opposite phasing, the trough of the reflected wave cancels the crest of the direct wave and vice versa.

The result: silence. As the ship gets closer, the up/down distance travelled by the reflected sound wave will grow in proportion to the horizontal distance travelled. Travelling proportionately further, the reflected wave will reach the whale more and more belatedly compared with the direct wave.

The crest/wave cancellation due to simultaneous arrival will dissipate and the whale will begin to hear the oncoming ship. Too late.

The terrible irony if whales sometimes surface precisely to escape infernal ship racket below and find best relief smack in the path of onrushing behemoths. Peace and quiet, so lovely….

(From the archives of Echelon Magazine; first published in July 2015)

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Sri Lanka utility to continue power cuts, regulator says no

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s state-run Ceylon Electricity Board has decided to continue power cuts, as the dry season hits the country despite orders to give 24 hours of power.

The utility said its Board “has decided to continue the demand management programme” and it has informed the regulator of this decision on January 27.

The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka said it had not approved the power cuts “as it violate and affect the rights of 331,000 students sitting for the Advanced Level exams.”

Sri Lanka’s CEB has high running costs due to long term scuttling of planned coal plants by activists and lastly President Maithripala Sirisena.

‘CEB’s costs went up as demand went up since the last coal plant opening and steady collapse of the currency from 131 to 182 to the US dollar due to open market operations unleashed to suppress rates and operate a flexible inflation targeting by the central bank.

Even more aggressive liquidity injections after 2020 to target an output gap then busted the currency from 182 to 360 to the US dollar.

CEB has to use extra fuel from around February to April 2022 as the dry season hits reducing hydro power.

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission has ordered the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to supply fuel and banks to give credit for extra power.

Power Minister Kanchana Wijesekera has alleged that CPC officials agreed under duress and threat of jail sentence to supply fuel.

The CEB has to cut power in case demand outstrips supply to maintain frequency at 50 Hz to avoid cascading failures, according to sector analysts. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka president suspends parliament till Feb 08

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe has suspended parliament till February 08, according to a gazette notice.

Parliament will re-convene at 1000 am on January 08.

President Wickremesinghe told party leaders that he would make a speech, officially declaring his intention to give effect to the 13th amendment to the constitution on provincial councils.

Provincial councils, a power sharing arrangement backed by India as a solution to the ethnic Tamil have not yet been given police and land powers. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka, other defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators: Expert

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka other recently defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators, and some other countries survive with even higher levels of debt, a US based analyst has said.

“If you look at the ratio of debt to GDP, the size of the economy the number is very high, mostly because there has been a lot of depreciation, so the debt in dollars keeps growing relative to GDP,” Sergai Lanau, Deputy Chief Economist at Washington based Institute of International Finance said.

“This is sometimes over-emphasized… but this ratio at 120 is a lot.”

He was speaking at a forum organized by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.

“Just for a reference point about 6 or 7 years ago Italy’s debt was 120 percent GDP, there was a lot of concern in the Euro area and that is a country that has the ECB. So Sri Lanka at 120 is a lot.”

Italy however is in a monetary union with Euro which is a floating exchange rate without anchor conflicts and forex shortages and basic external payment problems.

Sri Lanka is trying to bring the ratio down to 95 percent by 2032 under an International Monetary Fund backed program, according to a leaked letter from India.

“Typically for many years there was as lot of emphasis on debt ratios, when people looked at debt restructuring – or at least economists,” Lanau said.

“And that is something that always puzzled bond traders who came from the corporate sector. For them it is all about the flows and gross financing needs.

“The IMF has shifted its focus a lot financing needs over the years and it is a less of a problem now.”

Ghana has defaulted and it is trying to reduce its debt from around 90 percent to below 60 percent by 2028. It is starting at a much lower level and correcting within a shorter period to an even lower level.

Sri Lanka’s debt ratio is high but it “may or may not be a constraint”, he said.

What the … was that?

The IMF’s default workout framework is a work in progress, which has changed over the years since mass defaults hit market market countries which were denied monetary stability through intermediate regimes especially in Latin America from the early 1980s.

Until 1980, when the so-called BBC policy (now called exchange rate as the first line of defence) where countries were encouraged to bust their currencies instead of withdrawing inflationary policy, sovereign defaults were not a problem.

“During the 1970s, the risk of sovereign default was not perceived as a major concern,” the IMF itself admits.

“Most “external arrears” generated by a country were created by exchange restrictions. For example, an importer might miss a payment because the authorities were slow to release foreign exchange.

“Sovereign default had not been a problem since the Second World War.

“Therefore, the IMF’s policy framework was not equipped to confront the complications that arose in the context of the sovereign debt difficulties that emerged in the 1980s.

“In fact, it took until 1980 for the IMF’s Executive Board even to agree that a default on sovereign debt should also be covered under the external arrears policy.”

Washington based policy circles began to prescribe, inconsistent, anchor conflicting intermediate regimes with aggressive open market operations to anyone who was willing to listen after the Fed floated, in the false belief that currencies fell due to ‘overvaluation’ and not liquidity injections.

Countries like Sri Lanka where there is no doctrinal foundation in sound money and no knowledge of classical monetary theory, were easy prey, critics say.

East Asia and Japan rejected such regimes. Malaysia is a prime example which despite not having a legal hard peg, fixed itself, repaid debt ahead of time, when tin and other commodity prices collapsed in the wake of Volcker tightening, while Latin America defaulted.

Elephant in the room

A country with a soft pegged central bank (flexible exchange rate or intermediate regime) will see debt rocket each time it suppresses interest rates to target a policy rate and triggers a currency crisis.

Once a currency crisis hits, on one had the domestic currency value of external debt which is denominated in dollars protecting sovereign bond holders, goes up.

Interest rates of domestic debt also have to go up to stop the money printing and halt forex shortages which can widen the overall deficit in the short term.

The currency collapse also kills purchasing power and the real economy slows or contracts.

Once the credibility of the exchange rate has been lost, due to excess money injected the country loses the ability to settle both imports and debt repayment by exchanging domestic money for dollars.

The reserves (savings of past years) are used for current imports and debt repayments more money is injected to sterilize the interventions to maintain the policy rate, reserves collected over several years are run down in a few months.

Falling reserves, a depreciating currency then trigger rating downgrades (usually due to so-called exchange rate of as the first line of defence which saw downgrades in 2018 and 2020 in Sri Lanka) and sovereign bond as yields soar, and market access is lost, triggering a default.

As reserves dwindle further due to holding the policy rate with new money, more downgrades follow.

Countries with flexible exchange rates/flexible inflation targeting with market access can default at virtually any level of debt, critics say.

Market Access

Sri Lanka’s debt to GDP ratio shot up over 100 percent and lost almost all its reserves following a currency crisis in 2000/2001.

But at the time (or in earlier soft-peg crises in 1988/89 and earlier) the country did not have market access and bullet repayment debt.

In Sri Lanka bonds are big part of the country’s debt.

“Once you have lost market access there is virtually no level of gross financing needs that is sustainable,” Lanau said.

Analysts say the once market access has been lost, and the IMF declares that debt is unsustainable, which blocks the World Bank and ADB from giving loans, default is almost certain.

Argentina which has the archetypal soft-pegged Latin America central bank, which sterilizes interventions, strikes zeros off the peso at intervals and get into forex trouble.

“The country got into an IMF program in mid-2018, it was a very optimistic set of IMF targets, policy adjustments,” Lanau said.

“And this IMF program did not work and the situation got critical in August 2019 at which point Argentina defaulted.”

In March 2020 the IMF had presented a debt sustainability analysis where it was expected to to get its debt to 40 percent of GDP by 2030 and foreign exchange debt service to 3 percent of GDP, Lanau said, compared to 4.5 percent for Sri Lanka to make debt sustainable.

Ecuador which had a successful pre-emptive debt re-structuring, had debt levels of around 60 percent when it went talked to bond holders.

It was an ‘easy re-structuring, Lanau said.

It was a “lot about a bunch of maturities coming due in very few years as opposed to a very high debt ratio or a situation that was very unsustainable economically.”

Ecuador however is a dollarized country where its central bank effectively died in the 1990s after the sucre collapsed to 25,000 to the US dollar.

The Central Bank of Ecuador is no longer capable of creating forex shortages or driving the people to starvation and external debt is effectively in domestic currency.

Ecuador’s gross financing needs are now down to around mid single digits, while Sri Lanka’s has shot up to around 30 percent of GDP following the currency collapse.

Ecuador central bank was set up by Edwin Kemmerer, a US money doctor, with a gold peg (no obstinate policy rate) but was corrupted in 1947 by Robert Triffin, a US Keynesian who set up Argentina style central banks in several Latin America countries that frequently defaulted from the 1980s.

Sri Lanka’s central bank was also set up in 1950 by a US money doctor with broadly similar sterilizing powers.

Sri Lanka also started to depreciate the currency from around 1980 without withdrawing inflationary policy (an earlier re-incarnation of first line of defence strategy) triggering strikes, social unrest but no sovereign default due to lack of market access.

Sovereign defaults were mostly absent during the Bretton Woods era even in Latin America when countries maintained their pegs more or less with complementary monetary policy and the IMF also supported external anchors.

However after 1980 when the US tightened policy under Chairman Paul Volcker there were widespread defaults in pegged Latin American countries which did not hike rates in tandem or sterilized interventions (resisted the BOP) trying to operate independent monetary policy.

Now there are a number of market access countries in Africa and Asia with reserve collecting central bank which are trying to operate flexible inflation targeting, another monetary policy which are in conflict with the balance of payments which are ripe for serial currency crises and default.

Clean floating central bank do not use foreign reserves for imports nor collects them. (Colombo/Dec27/2022)

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