Good news surprise as world's whales recover rapidly

2017-06-27 08:09
Whales. (File, Gallo Images)

Whales. (File, Gallo Images)

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Durban - At a time when news about the environment is so often sad or depressing, oceans expert Professor Ken Findlay has some good news about the future of the Earth’s biggest creatures.

In short, most whale populations around the world are bouncing back to health after the relentless slaughter of almost two million whales across the globe over the last three centuries.

Opening the World Whale Conference in Durban on Monday, Findlay said whales had existed quite happily on Earth for 40 million years – until people started to hunt them for meat, fat and other products just 300 years ago.

Findlay - a marine biologist, whale expert and chair of the Centre for Sustainable Oceans at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology – attributed this success largely to the efforts of Greenpeace in the 1970s, an organisation regarded at that time as an environmental "fringe group".

By leading campaigns to halt commercial whaling, Greenpeace had managed to achieve a rare paradigm shift in human thinking and behaviour towards the conservation of whales and other marine species. This, in an era where there had been a sudden and unsustainable acceleration of the human use of natural resources across the globe.

"There are now 7.5m people on Earth. The human population has doubled, just in my lifetime, and we know that there are ecological limits that we cannot cross… But sometimes, rather than throwing big money and effort at environmental problems, the most critical issue is to actually change human behaviour and the way people think."

'Whales do have the ability to bounce back'

He noted that up to 150 000 Southern Right whales had been killed by the whaling industry between 1770 and 1935, with the total number of females reduced to less than 60 worldwide by the mid-1930s.

Now this population has recovered quickly, doubling from around 7 500 in the year 2000 to around 15 000 today.

Humpback whale populations in the Western Indian Ocean (which includes South Africa’s migratory population) had also recovered quickly after the species began to enjoy protection from 1963.

This sub-population has recovered to almost  15 000 individuals, almost the same level as the 1900s. 

The Blue Whale - the largest whale in the world, with adults weighing in at up to 170 tons - was also on the road to recovery. Prior to commercial whaling, Findlay said there were about 250 000 of these whales globally. They were hunted to the point of near extinction, but their numbers have recovered now to around 10 000.

However, this species was still rarely seen off the South African coast, with less than 10 Blue Whale sightings in local waters over the last 45 years.

"But overall, whales do have the ability to bounce back rapidly when they are protected."

One of the reasons for this was that the oceans remained largely intact – unlike land-based environments where wild animals were no longer able to roam and expand freely because of the expanding barriers of boundary fences, human development and the destruction of wild living spaces.

"I see this as a critical message of hope for conservation. I’m not saying the oceans are pristine at all, but for too long we have been telling stories of environmental doom and gloom – whereas the story of whale conservation invokes a sense of hope," he said in his keynote speech at the four-day Durban conference organised by the World Cetacean Alliance.

'Almost unrestricted access'

Francois-Xavier Mayer, head of the Madagascan-based Cetemada whale and dolphin conservation group, also started off on a positive note about the recent success in promoting responsible whale-watching ventures involving local community eco-guides.

Whale watching off Madagascar was now more strictly regulated to limit the number of whale-watching boats as well as distance restrictions when approaching whales.

To further reduce stress and disruption, all "swimming with whales" ventures were halted 17 years ago.

Sadly, however, Chinese and Korean fishing vessels still had "almost unrestricted" access to the fast declining marine resources off Madagascar.

"On some stretches of the coast, crabs went extinct in six months and sea cucumbers were wiped out in one year because of pressure from foreign fleets. There is another stretch of coast where octopus – which had provided food for local people for generations – were stripped clean in just three days.

"So we understand that we have to focus our attention more widely than just whales and dolphins because there are other ocean species facing enormous threats.

"But who wants to 'save the sea cucumbers'? How do you raise the money to save these less 'sexy' species?" he asked.

Read more on:    durban  |  environment  |  marine life  |  good news

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