Monday, September 8, 2008

Cetacean Conservation: a renewal of new strategies needed

It seemed in the 70's that cetaceans (whales) were quite the darlings of the conservation movement. A groundswell of respect and sympathy for these great oceanic mammals that were commercially hunted reached its zenith with the adoption of whaling restrictions and moratoriums for several species by the International Whaling Commission. Over the decades, whale eco-tourism has flourished and the populations of some species have improved. But there are still critical issues that require changes in strategies.

With whale eco-tourism, the need exists for greater scrutiny of procedures to better insure whale safety. A recent report cited in SeaWeb's Marine Science Review - 227, showed that in the northeast region of the U.S. where whale watching boats adhere to a voluntary program of "speed zones" regarding speed and distance from migrating whales, an alarmingly high number of boats were not in compliance and most operators approached the maximum speed limits routinely.

Of greater importance is the overall change in attitudes between the pro- and anti-whaling communities over the years. Another report cited in the same SeaWeb review, assessed the new "norm" that sprang from the anti-whaling movement. It was a fragile peace that has become weaker in recent years - culminating in Japan's recent definition of whaling for "scientific research" involving Humpback Whales.

One of the great challenges conservationists face is in dealing with commercial enterprises that have a strong cultural component. When you criticize the industry, the community takes it personally. It's not just black and white, dollars and cents - there's a definite emotional component that has to be considered. The anti-whaling strategies of the past have not fully won over public opinion in the pro-whaling countries and, according to the report, have even produced a boomerang effect. If you attack something with a strong cultural base without providing an alternative or substitute, or some sort of cultural "compensation", you face slow-building resistance and resentment. Which we are now seeing with Japan's recent actions and those of other nations who have a long history in commercial whaling.

Not to give up, but there needs to be a renewal in strategies, clever approaches in public relations, and diplomacy that rivals Middle East negotiations.

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