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Why the South Atlantic should be a sanctuary for whales.

Posted by Willie Mackenzie - 20th October 2016


One of the most significant issues being discussed and voted on at the upcoming International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Slovenia is the call to create a Whale Sanctuary in the South Atlantic. But what is a whale sanctuary? Why does it matter? And what’s so special about the South Atlantic?

A whale sanctuary is an area where whales are protected. That means that no human activity that directly harms them would be allowed. Of course that includes hunting them, but not just that. On the other hand a whale sanctuary is an area where truly sustainable development and ‘uses’ of whales – like ecotourism – would be actively encouraged. The idea is to create a place where whale populations, so devastated by commercial whaling in the past, and facing other threats today, would be able not just to survive, but to rebuild and thrive. It would also send a strong proactive and optimistic message about how countries around the South Atlantic (and farther afield) chose to  celebrate and value their whales and the vital role they play in the ocean.

Whale sanctuaries matter because whales today face a huge array of human threats, from pollution to fisheries entanglement and military noise, and many populations are still struggling to recover from decades or centuries of commercial whaling. At the same time there is an ongoing political battle to undermine the global moratorium on commercial whaling. Declaring a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic would create a permanent ‘no go’ zone to whaling in the event that ban was ever lifted. A sanctuary where whale populations were protected and thriving would be a great place to develop truly sustainable ecotourism, creating jobs and benefitting the wider ecosystem too. Crucially it would be a massive public endorsement that whales are worth much more alive than dead.

Lastly the South Atlantic has a chequered human history with whales. With the advent of industrialised factory whaling, bases in the South Atlantic were the first to annihilate entire whale populations to make cheap oil. That whaling depended on large amounts of whales, migrating to the Southern Ocean, most of which would have come from warmer parts father north. The South Atlantic is home to an amazing number of whale species – including southern right whales, majestic humpbacks, deep diving sperm whales, opportunistic orcas and of course the true giant of the ocean, the blue whale.

There is massive public support for this sanctuary. Huge numbers of people worldwide have signed petitions calling for its creation – a million of those alone are in Brazil, whose government is a strong and vocal supporter of the move. This has been discussed many times at the IWC, and despite having the support of all of the countries in the IWC bordering the proposed sanctuary, it’s been opposed for other reasons politically. Surely it’s time to listen, and put the whales first?

If you haven’t already added your voice to the call for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary, then please click here.

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