Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Uruguay have tabled a proposal to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to have a sanctuary declared in the Atlantic Ocean for all cetaceans (whales and dolphins) from the equator in the north to the Antarctic ice-shelf, with South America as the western boundary and Africa the eastern boundary.
Museum scientist Kevin Cole, recently represented the East London Museum at an international workshop on the proposal held in Praia do Forte, Bahai State, Brazil. Praia do Forte is a coastal resort town north of Salvador and home to the Humpback Whale Institute, one of the hosts of the workshop. A visit to this facility highlighted the work of cetacean biologists in this part of the Atlantic. The town also the home to the world famous turtle rehabilitation centre called Tamar. On one of the evenings a number of loggerhead turtles were released back into the ocean after having hatched earlier in the day.
Delegates at the workshop included IWC commissioners and a number of cetacean experts from around the world. Cole was one of the lecturers requested to do a presentation on the research and conservation of cetaceans in South Africa. The invitation to the workshop was directed through the office of the Secretary of Biodiversity and Forests of Brazil, Mr Roberto Cavalcanti.
IWC commissioners who were not yet convinced that the sanctuary was a good idea were also present and this stems, in part, from an objection by Japan not to have the sanctuary declared. The IWC has declared a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary (1994) and an Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary (1979) – the latter borders South Africa’s east and south coasts. This new sanctuary offers protection to whales and dolphins in an important part of the world’s oceans used for breeding and calving. The annual migrations of the larger species along these continental coasts of South America and Africa are a great economic boost for ecotourism in the form of whale-watching (a more sustainable form of whaling in modern times).
South Africa has a great diversity of cetaceans in its coastal waters and Cole’s presentation detailed research undertaken on the whales and dolphins in these waters over past decades. The most commonly studied animals are the southern right whale, the humpback whale, the killer whale, the Atlantic humpback dolphin and the sperm whale. Conservation threats and actions were also discussed including the proposed oil and gas exploration of underwater shale using seismic testing (a method potentially very harmful to marine mammals and other ocean species). Last week the East London Museum lodged an objection to a proposed application for an exploration permit off our coast involving seismic testing. This particular application is to survey approximately 157 000 square kilometres of ocean waters between Cape St Francis and Port Edward.
The proposed sanctuary is also important to stop the indiscriminate killing of whales by Japanese researchers and other illegal whalers. In this regard the Australian government has taken the Japanese government to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for killing whales for ‘research’ in a protected area. A landmark ruling was delivered by the ICJ on the 31st March 2014 (see previous post- 31st March 2014).
Other speakers included Bob Brownnel of the USA, Mariano Sironi of Argentina, Justin Cooke of Germany, Milton Marcondes of Brazil, Barbara Gilletti of Chile and Chandra Salgado Kent of Australia to name a few. It was a good opportunity to share ideas and to consolidate the way forward on this initiative to declare a sanctuary in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The Brazilian Minister of Environment, Izabella Teixeira, personally thanked all the participants at the workshop and commented that she would follow up with some of the proposals discussed with regard to African waters with her South African counter-part, Minister Edna Molewa.