Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. IX No. 4 - October 2000


News Notes

Compiled by William Rossiter


Brazil's first whale sanctuary was created in September by a decree by Brazil's president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The official Environmental Protection Area, in the southern state of Santa Catarina, covers the 130 kilometer (80 mile) stretch of coast that the southern right whale uses for calving and breeding. CSI in particular congratulates long-time associate José Truda Palazzo Jr., International Wildlife Coalition-Brazil, and co-coordinator of the Brazilian Right Whale Project, for this impressive achievement after an 18-month struggle with the local fishing industry. Although the International Whaling Commission backed the sanctuary proposal in 1998, the Project had to overcome several difficult obstacles in Brazil. The project, a non-governmental organization set up almost two decades ago to preserve the southern right whale, hopes official recognition of this important nursery site will attract fresh funding and expertise from international whale conservation groups.

Brazilian Right Whale Project

(Brazilian Right Whale Project)

The Brazilian Right Whale Project will monitor local southern right whale populations, educate the local communities, promote whale-watching tourism and establish guidelines for tourism operators. Beyond protecting a priceless natural resource, Brazil's first whale sanctuary is expected to produce an economic boon to local residents and businesses from whale-watching tourism. Local approval accelerated with studies showing that worldwide whale-watching tourism today is estimated to be worth US$1 billion a year in 63 countries.

Brazilian Right Whale Project

(Brazilian Right Whale Project)

Perhaps 7,000 southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) are now common off the coast of Santa Catarina from May to December. This relatively robust population has recovered after early 20th century whaling brought them nearly to extinction. Although declared an internationally protected species in 1935, hunting continued in Brazil until as late as 1973, when the last whaling station in the south of the country closed.

Right whales in the Bay of Fundy have been helped by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada grants totaling C$371,000, announced in mid-September, to develop a sonar technique to help ships avoid collisions with whales, test fishing gear designed to release entangled whales, and analyze right whale distribution and ship traffic so that shipping lanes can be adjusted in the bay of Fundy to prevent ship strikes on whales.

Norwegian whaling ended on 31 August, with a total of 487 Minke whales killed from a self-granted quota of 655. 589 were killed in 1999, also less than the quota. The North Sea harvest listed 83 whales killed out of a quota of 244. 32 vessels took part in the 2000 hunt. 93 metric tons were brought to shore and sold for about $0.03 per kilogram; more than 100 metric tons of blubber were dumped at sea because of the low price. Whale meat sold for about $3.60 per kilogram landed, or about $11.60 per kilogram to consumers. Most of this meat has already been sold.

Draft amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) brought environmental organizations to NMFS' Office of Protected Resources in late September, to be briefed on the Administration's proposed MMPA changes. This is just the beginning of a long and critical reauthorization process for the MMPA, which suffered heavy attacks from the captivity industry in 1994. Of initial concern to CSI are definitions of harassment levels, the associated permitting process, and co-management of populations with Native American authorities.

Patrick Mouwen, CSI's representative in Holland, is reviewing bycatches and pingers in Europe. He reports that hundreds of harbor porpoises die entangled in European fishing nets, a problem for many species worldwide. Although several thousand cetaceans are killed each year by accidental entanglement in fishing gear, and bycatch is considered the most important threat to cetaceans in European waters, the bycatch issue is still underrated by many European governments. Bycatches are not decreasing, and member states of the EU are failing to meet the agreements and goals set by ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas, http://www.ascobans.org). Due to their coastal and inshore distribution harbor porpoise populations in the southern North Sea and in the Baltic are especially vulnerable to bycatch in bottom-set gillnets. According to estimates by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea 4,450 porpoises are killed annually in fishing operations throughout the North Sea. In the Skagerrak area annual bycatch probably exceeds 4 percent of the total population and coincides with a decline in stock size. Such high mortalities, coupled with relatively low reproduction rates, mean that harbor porpoise populations will continue to decline until bycatches are reduced.

Pingers may be the big hope. Pingers are sound transmitters attached to fishing gear that would alert cetaceans to nets well outside nominal detection ranges. In some Danish waters they now are obligatory. The harbor porpoise population used to be more abundant in the north of the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Danish waters, but the numbers are declining. The porpoises may be moving south in a shift of habitats, towards Holland. That only confuses national bycatch policies, as one government blames what may be a natural population shift for lower numbers, and another uses their increased population to declare the issue less critical.

Holland's Harderwijk rehabilitation center specializes in entangled harbor porpoises. Some are rehabilitated and released, although the government has recently asked for proof that released porpoises survive. Some, less suitable for release, are used in research projects seeking the ultimate "pingers". Research on pingers is underway worldwide, with mixed results. It is probable that specific characteristics of sound improve a specific species' detection of a pinger in the wild. Research in Europe has shown that bottlenose dolphins can detect a net at 20 meters, while the harbor porpoise may need to be as close as three meters. However, cetaceans do not always use sonar to locate unexpected obstacles ahead. Pingers are expected to increase the detection of nets by alerting cetaceans at greater ranges. Intended only as alerts, pingers must not drive cetaceans from habitats or alter their social patterns. They must also be cheap, reliable, and easily maintained. Most of all, fishermen must be convinced that the time, cost, and results make pingers their best solution to bycatch problems.

The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species was released in Gland, Switzerland, in September. The Red List, a flagship product of IUCN, The World Conservation Union, is the most authoritative global assessment of species loss. It is compiled by the Species Survival Commission (SSC), made up of some 7,000 volunteer species experts working in almost every country in the world. The Red List has produced some alarming new facts about the decline of the world's species including the number of known extinctions that have taken place. It defines the decline in the world's biodiversity, quantifies human impact on the natural environment, and gives greater insight into the processes driving extinction. It reveals the countries with the most threatened species, identifies the habitats that have the most threatened mammals and birds, and highlights the most significant threats.

Over 18,000 species of animals and plants are included in the Red List, according to their risk of extinction. A species is classified as threatened if it meets strict scientific criteria for inclusion in one of three categories: Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable. Over 4,000 species included in the Red List will soon move into the threatened categories unless urgent action is taken to stop their rapid population declines.

For the first time, the 2000 Red List is being produced on CD-ROM. The analysis has been published as a booklet, and the entire "searchable" Red List is housed on a designated website that will be accessible from the launch day. This is also the first time that all animal and plant assessments have been combined in a single list. For more information please contact the Species Survival Commission: Tel: +41 22 9990001, fax: +41 22 9990015, email: alk@iucn.org.

Vigga died on 14 August. Vigga, 23, was an orca displayed at Six Flags Marine World amusement park at Vallejo, California, the second to die there in the past three years. In a September editorial the San Francisco Chronicle said that Vigga's death, "and the death of a 3-week-old dolphin in June raised serious questions about the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity, especially in the racket and chaos of an amusement park". A park spokeswoman Kristi Vonne insisted that they are well treated, well fed and happy in captivity, much like pet dogs. The Chronicle retorted: "Yet, they are not pets. Killer whales are sentient, wild mammals that live in extended family pods, communicate with each other and swim vast distances. Their brains are just as complex as humans' and four times larger. Vigga is dead after 19 years as a lead attraction at Marine World. The park should honor her memory by not replacing her with another killer whale."

Dolphins use a clear and consistent vocabulary to communicate, with each individual animal developing a specific signature acoustic signal, as reported in the 25 August issue of the journal Science by a Scottish biologist. He also concluded that dolphins used distinctive calls when they found food.

Japan drive fisheries were again allowed beginning 1 October 2000, for Wakayama and Shizuoka. Bottlenose, striped, spotted, and Risso's dolphins, false killer whales and short-finned pilot whales would be herded into shallow bays and brutally slaughtered. Fishermen blame cetaceans for eating too many fish, ignoring human over-fishing as the real culprit. They will kill anything they can find, in spite of the facts that Japanese scientists consider striped dolphins in Japan's coastal waters as highly endangered, bottlenose dolphins as threatened, and short-finned pilot whales as rare. There is insufficient data for the other species to even hazard a guess as to their status. The Japanese will have allowed at least 22,000 dolphins, porpoises and small whales to be killed this year, beyond the large whales already reported on for the IWC. A video of the 1999 drive fisheries kill was shown at the IWC meeting in Adelaide, prompting outrage from delegates. The Japanese delegation was only outraged that the video was shown, and later admitted on camera that killing methods had to be improved. Members of the Japanese public and press are generally unaware that such hunts occur in Japan and are often shocked to discover that such large numbers of dolphins, porpoises and small whales are still killed.

Should the orcas of Puget Sound, Washington State be listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)? These are the almost sacred J, K, and L pods, probably the most watched and researched wild whales in the world. They also may be the most chemically contaminated marine mammals in the world. This southern resident killer whale population included 98 individuals by mid 1995. By October 1999 this number had dropped to 83 whales. Possible reasons for the terrible 15 percent decline included high levels of contaminants, lack of prey resources, increased whale-watching activities in the San Juan Islands, or a combination of impacts.

Transient whales were far more contaminated than southern resident whales. Southern resident whales had higher PCB levels than northern residents or Prince William Sound residents, probably from eating different species of prey, or from different areas. Females typically have lower levels of PCBs than do males; mothers unwittingly transfer contaminants to their offspring through their milk, and broad trends by sex suggest a long term problem. Stress from human pressures or inadequate food resources could compromise immune system responses to toxin loads; these whales carry levels of PCBs that represent a tangible health risk.

Workshops of experts were convened in April and September to deal with what was happening. There was no opposition to a Threatened listing, but no consensus was reached either. The experts could agree only that worldwide production of persistent chemicals that mimic hormones should cease, and that the two dams that block salmon from the Elwah River should be removed immediately.

An ESA Threatened listing may facilitate increased budgets for research, education and solutions, a designation of critical habitat, or the development of a recovery plan. The listing process can take a long time. Not everyone feels that it is necessary or appropriate. Some felt that the population and range changes are part of a larger picture of climate change. Others believe that this population, now ranging far out of Puget Sound, is adapting to changes. Canada has already listed this population as Threatened, but there are differences between each country's definitions. A Threatened listing might have strong implications for fishing, logging, development, dams and polluting, but CSI believes that these orcas are giving us enough clues to act, and we must act. To voice your opinion on this issue please contact Ms. Donna Wieting, Chief Marine Mammal Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3326, Phone: (301) 713-2322, Fax: (301) 713-0376.


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