Whales – wanted dead or alive?

Whales are featuring heavily in science and environmental news at the moment, as the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission proceeds in Santiago, Chile. As always, feelings have been running high in both the pro- and anti-whaling camps. In the first vote of the meeting, Greenland has been denied the right to catch 10 humpback whales. A Greenland delegate said the decision would deprive its indigenous Inuit communities of much needed whale meat, while a Caribbean delegate from St Kitts and Nevis also said that the vote was "depriving marginal peoples of the right to eat.

As the arguments proceed in Santiago, BBC correspondent Richard Black raised the interesting question in a radio programme broadcast on Thursday as to just why so many people are interested in protecting whales? Is it for their own sake, or for their value to us as tourist attractions? He takes the case of Australia, where there are vehement protests about Japanese plans to hunt humpback whales – very popular for whale-watching tours Down Under – but little interest in similar plans to hunt the more threatened fin whales, which are seen as less of an attraction.

Whale-watching is an increasingly popular pastime, and as often occurs at the IWC meeting, a report on it’s economic value has just been released, this time on whale-watching in Latin America. The report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), The State of Whale Watching in Latin America, claims that Latin America’s whale watching industry has experienced a growth surge, with direct income from ticket sales more than quadrupling in the past 15 years and more than one million whale watchers expected this year alone. IFAW experts say the report provides further validation that the economic value of the whale watching industry is a real and more lucrative alternative to hunting whales.

"Whale watching is a win-win solution for whales and coastal communities worldwide," said Patrick Ramage, director of IFAW’s global whale program. "The phenomenal success of Latin America’s whale watching industry proves whale watching is a sustainable and lucrative alternative to killing whales." The report says that since 1998, Latin America’s whale watching industry has grown three times as fast as the world tourism industry overall, and 4.7 times as fast as the Latin American tourism industry.

The economic benefits of whale-watching have been used in the past to try and convince traditionally pro-whaling nations that their interests would be better served by promoting whale-watching. In 2003, Greenpeace published a report on the economic value of whaling in Iceland, and launched a campaign in which tens of thousands of people pledged to ‘seriously consider’ taking holidays in Iceland if the country gave up killing whales. Responding, Icelandic economist Vilhjalmur Bjarnason, said that reports on the economic benefits of whale-watching were greatly inflated, including everything from the whale tourists’ airfare to hotel expenses.

It may well be, as Richard Black says in his column, that we risk ‘losing what nature is if we couch its value in human terms’, and for many people whales are about more than ecotourism profits. Nevertheless, being seen as having more ‘value’, including from an economic sense, is often the best chance for survival for many of the world’s endangered species, or at least the better known ones. National Geographic Magazine has recently reported on two of these species, the snow leopard and the mountain gorilla. The snow leopard feature reports that Snow Leopard Conservancy–India, had helped set up Himalayan Homestays, a program that steers trekkers to the houses of herders who agree to protect snow leopards and their wild neighbors. Many have signed up, and the income they get more than compensates for the value of stock lost to the predators.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, however, a report in the current issue compares the last known income from gorilla tourism in 2006 of US$300,000, with an estimated value of the illegal charcoal trade in the forest the gorilla lives in of $30 million. Not surprisingly, the charcoal trade continues.

Further information

The report on whale-watching in Latin America can be downloaded in PDF format through this page on the IFAW whale website. Also available is a 2001 report on whale-watching, which contains data from 1998 referred to in the latest study. Many aspects of whale and dolphin tourism are also covered in a book from CABI, on Marine wildlife and tourism management. The references below, taken from CAB Abstracts and Leisuretourism.com may also be of interest.

Whale watching in the Mediterranean: criteria for sustainable development. Mayol, P., Beaubrun, P., Dhermain, F., Richez, G. / Espaces, Tourisme & Loisirs, 2007, No.244, pp. 42-52

Effectiveness of voluntary conservation agreements: case study of endangered whales and commercial whale watching. Wiley, D. N. , Moller, J. C. , Pace, R. M., III , Carlson, C. / Conservation Biology, 2008, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 450-457, 39 ref.

Sustainable ecotourism on Atlantic islands, with special reference to whale watching, marine protected areas and sanctuaries for cetaceans. Hoyt, E. / Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section B, 2005, Vol. 105B, No. 3, pp. 141-154, 36 ref.

2 thoughts on “Whales – wanted dead or alive?

  1. oMan July 17, 2008 / 10:24 pm

    Come to Oman to Whale & dolphins watching. The best time to visit is between October and April with temperatures averaging between 25°C and 35°C.

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