June 26, 2010

Whalewatching Industry Booming

According to a new study, whalewatching revenue topped $2 billion in 2009 and is set to grow 10 percent this year.

The researchers said that the findings boost arguments that whales are worth more alive than dead.

They also coincide with a decision by the 88-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC) to move forward with a "five year strategic plan" exploring the economic benefits and ecological risks of whalewatching.

The study found that about 13 million eco-tourists in 2009 paid to see the animals in their natural element, generating about $2.1 billion and employing 13,000 people across hundreds of coastal regions worldwide.

"This shows that we can have our whales and still benefit from them, without killing them," co-author Rashid Sumaila, a researcher at the University of British Columbia told the AFP news agency.

The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Policy, said that whale tourism has expanded steadily over the last two decades, and could add over $400 million and 5,700 jobs to the global economy every year.

"Given our methods of calculation, this is a conservative estimate. The real figures are probably much higher," Sumaila told AFP.

About half of this growth would be beneficial to seaside communities in developing countries, especially in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, where many fisheries are in decline.

"It can be launched with little initial investment and carried out by local fishers who are already familiar with the area," the study noted.

Countries that partake in whaling have argued that watching whales and killing them are compatible when populations are robust and expanding.

Every year half-a-million people go out to whaling nations in hopes to see a humpback, orca or other whale in full breach.

However, the researchers suggested that if attitudes continue to shift toward protection, tourists may one day insist on observing whales near countries that are not also engaged in slaughtering them for market.

Pro- and anti-whaling nations made an effort to bridge the gap between nations during the IWC's annual meeting, but talks collapsed earlier this week.

Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling that went into effect in 1986, Iceland, Japan and Norway harvest hundreds of the large cetaceans each year.

Opponents of commercial whaling hope that tourism will help insure the long-term viability of the whaling industry toward other goals.

"All international bodies must evolve," said Peter Garett, Australia's minister for environment protection. "We see a future for the IWC that is much more about conservation than counting the number of whales that are killed."

"There is a tremendous economic future -- a sustainable future -- in whale watching, not whale killing," he told AFP.

Delegates said that many local communities are thriving thanks to mammoth sea mammals that happen through their waters.

Kerena Lyons told AFP that the New Zealand town of Kaikoura, for example, "has subsequently been transformed, and now attracts 100,000 visitors annually."

And in tiny Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic, "43 boats and 10 tour operators offer trips for more than 25,000 tourists every year," Liliana Betancourt of the Conservation Centre of Bahia de Samana told AFP.

Vincent Ridoux, a marine biologist at the University of La Rochelle in France and a member of the French delegation, warned that whalewatching can have unintended consequences.

"We tend to observe whales where they feed and reproduce. If the whalewatching is too invasive and always in the same place, it can push the whales into less optimal areas," he explained.

However, the greatest danger could be the running out of whales.

"It could be a multi-million dollar industry, but in Tonga there are not enough whales anymore," Sue Taei of the Pew Environment Group said of the Pacific island nation.

She said that Soviet factory ships decimated the region's whales in the 1960 and 1970s.


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