Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 2 April 1999

Whale-Watching Ethics Forum Report

by Lea Brown, CSI Board Member

On Wednesday, 6 January 1999, The Center for Coastal Studies and the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary sponsored an all-day forum on Whale-Watching Ethics to facilitate a public policy review of the New England whale-watching guidelines. The forum was held at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, Massachusetts. Panel topics included discussions of how effective the guidelines have been in protecting whales, industry compliance, enforcement, operating practices, the need for regulation, and current scientific knowledge about the interaction of whales and whale-watching boats.

Peter Borelli, Executive Director, Center for Coastal Studies called the Forum to order outlining the main issues which were to address the recent whale strikes of the previous season and also to explore the charge that the act of whale-watching is a form of harassment. Mr. Borelli then introduced Rear Admiral John L. Linnon, U. S. Coast Guard (retired) as the moderator of the morning session of the Forum.

The first group of panelists were to address the New England Whale-Watching Guidelines. The panelists included: Douglas Beach, Protected Resources Division, National Marine Fisheries Service; David Mattila, Senior Scientist, Center for Coastal Studies; and Capt. Russell Webster, Commanding Officer, U.S. Coast Guard Group Woods Hole. The points made were the beginning of a very interesting discussion.

A discussion followed and the questions of being able to strengthen the guidelines by adding amendments or better enforcement was the way the panel seemed to go on this topic. A lot more knowledge is needed but the need to act soon is a strong factor.

The next group of panelists were to address the issues from the perspective of the whale-watching industry. They included: Capt. Steve Milliken, Dolphin Fleet, Provincetown; Brian MacDonald, Director of Whale-Watching, New England Aquarium; and Capt. Jim Douglas, Cape Ann Whale Watch.

The discussion following this presentation spoke to the issues that guidelines are not as effective as regulations and that enforcement is very much a problem as there are limited resources. There was a wide belief that speed is a factor in the whale strike matter and that this will have to be recognized and dealt with for the good of all. Who to certify was also a very lively part of this discussion, leaving us with a lot to think about.

The naturalist perspective was next with the following representatives: Mason Weinrich, Executive Director and Chief Scientist, Cetacean Research Unit; and Sharon Young, Marine Mammal Policy Consultant, Humane Society of the United States.

The discussion following this perspective turned toward the outcome of the investigation of the whale strikes which was that both cases are still pending and that charges could possibly be brought but that mostly there might be a case where speed was a contributing factor. No review is quick. Whales do detect movement through their tubercles. What is the responsibility of the naturalist in informing the public on the issues of cetaceans was another issue to open up and lots of opinions were rendered.

During the afternoon, Mr. Peter Borelli was the moderator, keeping the forum on time and on track.

The panelists given the topic to go "Beyond the Guidelines" was given to the following: Bob Bowman, Maine Project Director, Center for Coastal Studies; and Bruce Russell, Consultant to International Fund for Animal Welfare and Co-Chair of the Ship Strike Subcommittee of the Large Whale Take Reduction Team.

The discussion following this group brought up the fact that an existing association is in place and could be a factor in certification, this was the Pilot's Association. There was quite a bit of conversation involving the possibility of permit, certification, observers and possibly using our area as a pilot program for other areas experiencing the same problems.

The research group was next with the following panelists: Peter Tyack, Associate Scientist, Department of Biology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Amy Knowlton, Associate Scientist, New England Aquarium; and David Wiley, Marine Consultant, Senior Scientist, International Wildlife Coalition.

The discussion further explored the possibility that a central information agency may be necessary to maintain accurate information to all.

The afternoon session came to the last group of panelists, the topic being "Rules of the Road", which included the following: Brad Barr, Sanctuary Manager, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary; Dennis Nixon, Dir. of Graduate Programs, Dept. of Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island; and Capt. Michael J. Chaplain, Chief of Operations, First Coast Guard District.

The final discussion time was full of all of the issues and the tick of time running out as it is the eleventh hour for the whale-watch industry and scientists to come together and make sound resolutions that will have the best interests of all involved.

Final thoughts were summed up best by Dennis Nixon, who pointed out that the Marine Mammal Protection Act was up for renewal this year and that this law states that we are to protect marine mammals - "let us begin".

And you thought all there was to whale-watching was to pay for your ticket and climb on board! Please get active, ask the naturalist about the guidelines and if anything new has been proposed. If you want to talk about this most interesting forum, sign up for the CSI whale-watch (see notice in this Whales Alive!) as there will be someone available to talk with you. And it is a lot of fun!

For a report on this Forum by the Center for Coastal Studies (one of the Forum's sponsors), see: Whale-Watching Ethics. Also see a CCS article that follows up on what has happened since the Forum: New Whale-Watching Guidelines Established for the Northeast U.S.

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