Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Study questions impact of whale watching

A sperm whale dives in front of the Kaikoura Whale watch vessel. Photo / supplied
A sperm whale dives in front of the Kaikoura Whale watch vessel. Photo / supplied

A new evidence-based book has questioned whether whale and dolphin watching are the low-impact, sustainable industries many believe them to be.

The book Whale-watching: Sustainable Tourism and Ecological Management critically explores the complex issues associated with the sustainable management of whale watching around the world, highlighting the spectacular growth in demand for tourist interactions with cetaceans in the wild, and the challenge of effective policy, planning and management.

"Whale watching has developed very quickly around the world and has been strongly advocated by non-governmental organisations, governments and tourism development agencies, which highlight the assumed sustainability of 'non-consumptive' enterprises," said University of Otago Tourism Professor James Higham, one of the book's editors.

"This book really puts the spotlight on that."

New Zealand's best-known example, the award-winning Whale Watch Kaikoura, each year takes around 100,000 visitors out on to the Pacific Ocean to view giant sperm whales that frequent the area.

The venture operated as a charitable entity with an annual turnover of $10 million, much of which goes back to the local community, and worked closely with the Department of Conservation to achieve a high ecotourism standard.

Professor Higham said the rationale behind whale watching - shooting with cameras rather than harpoons - was "very appealing" and could intuitively be considered non-consumptive.

"But as the industry had grown, animal populations have come under more and more pressure and the 'non-consumptive' nature of whale watching has been drawn into question," he said.

"While whale watching has been widely portrayed as a sustainable alternative to whale hunting since the early 1980s, simply assuming that whale watching is sustainable obscures the potential unsustainable whale-watching practices."

Research by another editor of the book, Associate Professor Lars Bejder from Australia's Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit, looked at Shark Bay, Western Australia, a popular site for people to view bottlenose dolphins.

Professor Bejder demonstrated that as the level of interaction increased, so too did the effect on the animals' biology, habitat use and numbers.

"Whales and dolphins frequent certain ecological regions because they are good places to feed, or rest, or raise young," Associate Professor Bejder said.

"Take the spinner dolphins of Hawai'i. They feed at night in offshore waters and go into shallow, protected bays to rest and socialise during the day - but that's where and when tourists gather to watch them, potentially disturbing their critical daily resting period."

Professor Higham said the new book highlighted that, in considering the relationships that exist between humans and cetaceans, terms such as "exploitative"and "consumptive"must be used "advisedly".

"The transition from physical extraction (hunting) to the selling of services (tourist experiences) should acknowledge that both may be exploitative and consumptive in different ways and to varying degrees."

While the book explored the challenges of sustainability, it also focussed on solutions.

It offered various ways of trying to overcome the potential for impact on these animals, taking account of different regional and national contexts, and employing insights from relatively successful models such as Shark Bay and Kaikoura.

The book came about following lengthy conversations between Professor Higham and Associate Professor Bejder at a conference in Perth in mid-2006.

They agreed there was a need to comprehensively address the subject of human interaction with whales and dolphins.

The proposal to edit a book, bringing together contributions by international experts, moved quickly to contract.

Professor Higham said the book had taken several times longer to complete than any other he had worked on.

"It has been quite a minefield. This is a contentious and political subject."

A 2004 study published by the Department of Conservation described whale watching, when managed properly, as "both environmentally sustainable and economically viable".

Whale watching in Kaikoura was a multi-million dollar business that that had "transformed" the community, it said.

"The community development over the past decade demonstrates that it is both socially and culturally acceptable and there is every indication that it will remain that way for many years to come," the study said.

"Whale watching proves year after year that it is without doubt the best use of whale resources today."

This month, Conservation Minister Nick Smith announced a new whale sanctuary for Kaikoura, extending 45 kilometres north and south of the Kaikoura peninsula and 56km out to sea, protecting the sperm, humpback, southern right, blue, killer and other whales that frequent the area and prohibiting high-level seismic survey work.

- NZ Herald

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