Whaling in the Caribbean

St. Lucia – Eastern Caribbean islands are killing whales and dolphins in numbers that represent one of the largest officially recorded intentional cetacean kills in North and South America.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) permits the hunting of large whales for aboriginal subsistence in the Caribbean country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines but, at present, the IWC has no jurisdiction over small cetaceans. The Cartegena Convention includes a Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol that extends protection to all cetacean species. Although this protocol came into force in 2000, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines are ignoring the agreement.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a member of the IWC, has been granted an exception to land two Humpback whales per year. St. Lucia also hunts small cetaceans.

“For the Caribbean, we only have data provided by St Lucia, and only for 1999,” says IWC Secretary Nicky Grandy, but these statistics indicate that significant kills of marine mammals are taking place.

According to IWC records, the number of reported kills in 1999 include: Short-finned pilot whales (8), Pygmy orcas (2), False orcas (3), Bottlenose dolphins (2), Atlantic spotted dolphins (12), Fraser’s dolphins (1), Common dolphins (1). The number of estimated kills is much higher: Short-finned pilot whales (35), Pygmy orcas (18), False orcas (12), Bottlenose dolphins (20), Atlantic spotted dolphins (60), Fraser’s dolphins (6), Common dolphins (10).

“These IWC reported numbers represent the biggest intentional cetacean kill (as opposed to dolphins killed indirectly in the fishing industry) in North and South America that our organization knows of,” says Mark Palmer, assistant director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

On March 19, two endangered humpback whales were killed by local whalers in the waters of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. St. Vincent Fisheries Department officials substantiated the kill and claimed that the whales were within the legally allowed size and that the catch was within the allocated IWC quota.

In February, a struggling killer whale was hauled onto an unmarked fishing trawler off the northern coast of St. Lucia. In the same month, tourists on a St. Lucia whale-watching trip were confronted by the spectacle of local anglers trying to harpoon a sperm whale.

The humpback is the foundation of the large whalewatching industries of New England, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Dominican Republic, Hawai’i, Alaska and Australia. Ordinarily, killing a humpback would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But not in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Last year, an endangered Humpback calf and its mother were slaughtered by fishermen from St. Vincent and the Grenadines in full view of tourists. The incident was widely reported by international media.

“The St. Vincent hunt has been poorly regulated and the whalers have persistently (and illegally) killed calves. Last year, fishermen also killed a Bryde’s whale, which is also illegal,” says Sue Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), a London-based nonprofit.

Whale and dolphin hunting on these Caribbean islands have been practiced for generations but environmental organizations are hoping that the growing popularity of whale and dolphin watching will pressure island governments to protect cetaceans.

“Whalewatching offers a choice and one that we feel fits in with the strong conversion of many of these islands to a tourism economy,” says WDCS Consultant Erich Hoyt, a marine ecologist and author of seven books on whales and dolphins.

“We hope to use positive action from tourists to encourage a change in policies,” says Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Audrey Cardwell. “Let’s face it, most of the tourists who go to spend their money on the Caribbean would be very upset to know or see such hunts going on. Their Caribbean fantasy is swimming with dolphins, not eating them.“Environmental organizations claim that Caribbean nations are being financially influenced by Japan, which hopes to promote cetacean fishing in the region as a means to bolster Japan’s efforts to win a resumption of commercial whaling.

In July 2000, Lloyd Pascal, Dominica’s representative to the IWC, dismissed the allegation of Japanese influence-buying as “an absurd attempt by detractors to smear Dominica and to bring down the government.”

The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines openly acknowledges that the Japanese are helping them to expand their cetacean fishing. A statement from the Grenadines Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Labor admits that a “special program” for the Blackfish (or pilot whale) and the Bottlenose dolphin has been proposed “to assess the status of these resources and their potential for development.” Of particular interest, the document observes, are “the health and nutritional benefits to be derived from the blackfish oil and the possibilities which exist for the development of this product.” The statement notes that this program is dependent on “support from appropriate Japanese institutions.”

“The Eastern Caribbean seems to want to play Russian roulette with its tourist economy,” says Andrew Christie, information director of the nonprofit Sea Shepherd International. “Between the scarce marine mammal protection laws and worse enforcementÂ… and the eager and well-compensated acquiescence of Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and St. Vincent in Japanese plans to kick-start commercial whaling worldwide, it won’t take much more than one tourist video of a local whale slaughter to teach them the hard way that you can’t have your whales and kill them, too.”

©2001 Donald Sutherland. The author is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Resources: the IWC [http://www.iwcoffice.org], the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society [http://www.wdcs.org], and the St. Lucia Whale and Dolphin Association [PO Box 1114, Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies, http://www.geocities.com/slwdwa].

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