Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 1 January 1999


News Notes


The Seventh Annual Whales Alive Conference will be held January 21-24, 1999, at the Four Seasons Resort Maui, Wailea, Hawaii. This year's conference will be dedicated to the memory of Lloyd Bridges, for his inspiration, friendship and many contributions to whale and ocean conservation. An amazing array of people will assemble for lectures, workshops and whale watching to revitalize their connection to whales and each other, expand our understanding and appreciation of whales, and explore ways to better protect these magnificent creatures. The conference will include presentations by prominent researchers, conservationists and activists, and narrated whale watch excursions. Interwoven in the program are unique presentations by authors and entertainers, film makers and photojournalists. Some of the featured participants whose names you may recognize include Dr. Jim Darling, Flip Nicklin, Dr. Paul Spong, Sakae Fujiwara, Brad Barr, Patricia Forkan, Dave Phillips, Mark Berman, Craig Van Note, Dr. Toni Frohoff, Sally Mizroch, Mac Hawley, Ben White, Dr. Marsha Green, Linda Hogan, Brenda Peterson, Susan Wallace Barnes, Michael McIntyre, and Stan Butler. More information is available by phone: 360-446-0528, or email: whalesalive@igc.apc.org.

The 300 surviving North Atlantic right whales got a little more protection when the United Nations' International Maritime Organization voted unanimously in December to require that commercial ships entering the whales' calving grounds off coastal Florida and Georgia, or feeding grounds offshore of Massachusetts, to report by radio to the U.S. Coast Guard for the latest information on whale locations and collision avoidance, beginning July 1st. A letter by J.M. Terhune and W.C. Verboom in January 1999's Marine Mammal Science, 15(1):256-258, described some of the natural mitigating effects on vessel noises that may cause right whales (and others) to be unaware of potential collisions. Publication delays precluded this valuable information from being introduced at several pertinent workshops and task force meetings concerned with anthropogenic acoustical impacts and the survival of the North Atlantic right whale this past year. In the same issue, 65-84, vessel noise is shown to have a significant impact on beluga vocalizations in the St. Lawrence River estuary, Canada. There is nothing to report on the U.S. Navy's LFA Draft Environmental Impact Statement and related issues in this Whales Alive!, but please conserve your energy. The battle will begin soon.

Gulf of Maine threatened Harbor Porpoises may get some relief from gill netting because of NMFS modifications to rules for where and how New England and Mid-Atlantic gill net fishermen may fish. Six areas in the Gulf of Maine will be closed to gill netting, with some exceptions for gill nets equipped with sound-emitting pingers. In the mid-Atlantic region area closures and gear modification will be used. A lawsuit was required to get even these modest results. NMFS will decide in January whether to list harbor porpoise as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Congratulations to the government of Argentina for banning orca whaling, and imposing a high fine for violations.

The World Heritage Committee meeting in Kyoto, Japan in December included a discussion of concerns for the joint Mexican and Mitsubishi Corp. salt project in the El Vizcaino World Heritage site near San Ignacio Lagoon on Baja California, Mexico (see Whales Alive!, October 1998). Although the World Heritage Committee agreed to dispatch a research team to investigate the situation at Mexico's El Vizcaino site, with a report of findings anticipated sometime in 1999, the Committee declined to add the controversial site to its "World Heritage in Danger" list. Mitsubishi's slick Internet site is a marvel of public relations; do they really believe they will have no impact? More likely they just don't care.

Not enough can be said about ocean warming. A significant proportion of the world's coral has reportedly died in the past year as a result of the highest sea temperatures on record, an unprecedented natural disaster. CSI's interest in cetaceans includes the recognition that we all need the oceans. At the climate change talks in Buenos Aires in November, International Union for the Conservation of Nature scientists declared that the coral reefs are the canary in the mine for global warming. They will go first. In fact, they're going fast. The headlines are everywhere, if you look; "Greenhouse gases imperil life of oceans", "Climatologists fear that global warming threatens the survival of life in the oceans", "Further warming of the atmosphere may cause the collapse of deep water formations in the oceans", "Commercial fisheries are taking 155% of sustainable levels". The facts sustain the headlines. Surveys in the Indian Ocean found between 70-90% of the reefs were dead. Thousands of miles of reef have been killed in the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives. Thousands of miles of corals in the Western Pacific, from Vietnam to the Philippines and Indonesia, have died or bleached as they have been starved of the symbiotic algae that provide their food and energy. The Caribbean has suffered as well. The only large areas of coral known to have escaped some devastation are the atolls of the central Pacific. Coral reefs provided over 100 countries with fish and other services such as tourism, worth $500 billion a year. They also prevented tidal waves and erosion. They supported 93,000 fish species, 25% of the total, in 0.3 per cent of the oceans' area. We all need them, Whales and Man. Don't be alarmed: act. Start at the World Resources Institute's web site http://www.wri.org/indictrs/reefrisk.htm and search for the latest facts and actions to be taken.

A November oil spill in south China again threatened the Chinese white dolphins, which already are on the verge of extirpation in waters off Hong Kong. The spill, which occurred when two ships collided, left an oil slick about six miles long off the mouth of the Pearl River in Guangdong province, about three miles from the habitat of the white dolphins. So few remain in the heavily polluted waters of south China and Hong Kong that experts have predicted they will be extinct in a few years. A larger oil leakage occurred in 1995 in Chinese waters near the Pearl River when two ships collided. More than 300 tons of oil were released into sea, according to official statistics.

Canadian Fisheries Minister David Anderson announced in November that he's lifting beluga quotas for Iqaluit and Kimmirut in 1999, on the condition that hunters help monitor beluga and narwhal populations and work with fisheries officials to assess the real impact of hunting on southeast Baffin beluga stocks. The Minister has also agreed to the wildlife board's proposed three-year management plan for narwhals, which will see quotas lifted in every community, subject to a number of conditions. Each community will be responsible for a set of local bylaws to establish specific non-quota requirements for narwhal hunting, such as appropriate hunting methods and possession limits. The stated purpose is to ensure the conservation of narwhals and ensure that there will not be a "tremendous increase" in harvest. Iqaluit has never reported reaching its annual quota of 35 belugas since being imposed in 1991, and Kimmirut's summer quota of 20 animals has been reported only once. Assuming accurate reporting, increased takes are not expected because presumably people are taking as many beluga as they can or want now. Related or not, in November NMFS published notice in the Federal Register announcing a status review of Cook Inlet beluga whales to determine whether their status warrants a change in designation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act or listing under the Endangered Species Act. Will a status change subject them to more impacts, as with the gray whales and Makah whaling? Public comment must be postmarked by January 19, 1999.

Cultural behavior passing across generations in species other than humans has been presented for the first time in an article in Science, November 27, 1998: 1708-1711. "Cultural Selection and Genetic Diversity in Matrilineal Whales", by Dr. Hal Whitehead, suggests that the ability of whales to communicate and socialize using long-distance sonar signaling has a genetic basis. To quote the abstract of this significant finding: "Low diversities of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have recently been found in four species of matrilineal whale. No satisfactory explanation for this apparent anomaly has been previously suggested. Culture seems to be an important part of the lives of matrilineal whales. The selection of matrilineally transmitted cultural traits, upon which neutral mtDNA alleles `hitchhike,' has the potential to strongly reduce genetic variation. Thus, in contrast to other non-human mammals, culture may be an important evolutionary force for the matrilineal whales."

The self-imposed Norwegian whaling quota for 1999 will be 753 minke whales. This increase from the 1998 quota of 671 minkes, of which 624 were actually killed, includes numbers not killed by previous yearly quotas. The whalers couldn't find enough minkes to kill to meet the quotas before, but they somehow expect to catch up this year. Subsidized by the government, previous years' stockpiles of frozen whale meat in Norway are already much larger than the consumer market can use. In late November the annual meeting of the Norwegian Whalers' Union convened in the Lofoten Islands, ironically a popular site for summer whale watch cruises. Some boats from Lofoten can switch from whaling to whale watching on the same day. So far no tourists have boarded the wrong trip. The meeting's agenda included the first screening of a new documentary film on Norwegian minke whaling, guaranteed not to include the issue of humane killing. The humane killing workshop of May's IWC meeting will spend all of a half day debating techniques presumed to kill whales "humanely", including data from the Makah whaling. "Humane" here means a whale suffers only 15 minutes after being harpooned or shot, yet still evokes protests from whalers as too restrictive.

The Japanese whaling mother ship Nisshin Maru was damaged by fire en route to the Southern Ocean Sanctuary in November and was finally routed back to Japan for repairs after several protests and port rejections. The Chief Engineer was reported to have committed suicide after the fire. It is not known whether Japan will resume "scientific" whaling this season.


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