Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Whale success story

For reasons known to insiders, there is a fairly widespread belief that the international cetacean conservation policy debate is in a deadlock. From Tenerife in the Canary Islands where I'm attending the Western African Talks on Cetaceans and their Habitats (WATCH), I'd like to give a different perspective today.

The first leg of the Talks (concluded this afternoon with a whale watching boat tour between the islands of La Gomera and Tenerife) has been an inspiring and truly stimulating encounter of scientists and regulators, coming mostly from West Africa, the Canaries, the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde (and Portugal).

In the last two days, I heard a lot of very impressive presentations by committed scientists describing with an activist passion their important scientific discoveries, made possible with creative pioneering techniques which we could not even have envisaged thirty years ago when I was first involved in whale conservation.

[I spend a great part of my life in international conferences; most of the time I preach, I agitate or I conspire, but I rarely learn much; this week however was a real learning experience]

From tomorrow onward, the details of an Action Plan for the protection of small cetaceans in this maritime region will be discussed with a view to its adoption on Saturday. A Memorandum of Understanding for the protection of the remaining Atlantic population of Mediterranean monk seals on the coasts of Mauritania and further North along the Maghreb coast will also be signed tomorrow.

A Spanish Government representative also presented this morning a new draft model regulation that will provide protection to cetaceans from hazards caused by shipping and whale watching.

It was a true privilege for me to witness the amazing progress cetacean science and conservation have made in the last thirty years. The environmental movement needs success stories, and -- because of my perhaps unique historic perspective -- I can see this one is certainly a good one.

When I sailed into Spanish waters for the first time (on board the Rainbow Warrior) little more than 29 years ago, the law defended exclusively the whalers; it was castigating those who (like me and my colleagues at the time) wanted to protect whales. But a generation and a half later we observe that a total paradigm shift has taken place. It's something to celebrate.

When I sailed into Spanish waters for the first time nearly 30 years ago, a few miles from this week's conference venue two pirate whaling factory ships flying flags of convenience were operating out of Las Palmas with no control whatsoever. There was also at that time two coastal whaling stations on the Spanish mainland operating outside the control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Shortly before, and for many years, even the dictator of Spain in person, Francisco Franco, was routinely harpooning sperm and other whales, for sport on board his yacht The Azor.

Because I lived through those remote times, I was truly thrilled to hear this week so many young committed scientists and regulators.

Thirty years represent a generation and a half of humans and a generation and a half of great whales (based on an average of 20 years to reach reproduction stage). It's certainly been a long time for those of us who pioneered whale conservation. And for the whales who got hit as a result of the lack of care in those times. But at the scale of life on the planet it's all relative, isn't it?

There is hope.

(Thank you to Canarias Conservación for providing the photo of the wonderful natural sculpture they're just about to present in public. And for their work)

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