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Southern Ocean whales face new threats

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 18 June 2010

Preventing whaling in the Southern Ocean (the seas around Antarctica) is critical to ensuring the recovery of whale populations in the entire southern hemisphere, a new WWF report states.

The blue whale's blow is 10-12m high which makes it easy to spot these animals from far away

The report comes ahead of the upcoming 62nd International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting, where governments will debate a possible resumption of commercial whaling in Antarctic waters.

Save the Whale, Save the Southern Ocean reveals how seriously depleted several Southern Hemisphere great whale populations are, many of which are completely reliant on the Southern Ocean as the only place they feed. If whale populations were again decimated in the Southern Ocean, they may also disappear from the seas around many other countries in Africa, Oceania, the Pacific Islands and Latin America.

Whaling in the Southern Ocean has been banned for decades as a result of rampant commercial hunting in the last Century which brought several great whale species to the brink of extinction. In 1994, the IWC established the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. However since the global ban on commercial whaling came into effect, Japan has killed 9,409 whales in the Southern Ocean in the name of ‘scientific research’.

Today most great whale species in the Southern Ocean remain severely depleted when compared with pre-whaling levels. More than 200,000 Antarctic blue whales used to live in the Southern Ocean – but 20th Century whaling decimated this population and latest estimates put this population at just around 2,300 animals. 725,000 fin whales were killed in previous commercial whaling operations – with fin whales now listed as endangered. Yet the IWC is proposing to open a commercial hunt for this species in the Southern Ocean.

“If there is one place in the world where whales should be protected, it is the Southern Ocean,” said Wendy Elliot, Species Manager at WWF International. “It should be a fundamental and unquestionable responsibility of IWC governments to eliminate immediately all whaling in these waters,” she said.

Whales in the Southern Ocean still haven’t recovered from industrial hunting in the 20th century but they already face new threats to their existence. Climate change, ship-strikes, the potential for unsustainable commercial fishing that could deplete valuable food sources, entanglement in fishing gear and acoustic and chemical pollution are all emerging dangers to the slow-reproducing group of species.

“We know with all certainty rampant killing of more than a million whales in the Southern Ocean had dramatic repercussions on whale populations in the whole southern hemisphere,” said Rob Nicoll, WWF’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean Initiative Manager. “And new studies are showing that the direct effect on whale populations could have had significant impacts on ecosystem productivity that is intrinsically linked to the carbon cycle and global climate regulation,” he added

Recovering whale populations have significant economic benefits. Whales bring critical tourism revenue to the southern hemisphere. In Latin America alone, whale watching generates an annual $278.1 million, often in remote coastal areas.

As a slow reproducing species whales need a long time to recover from overexploitation. Blue whales, for example, reach sexual maturity between the age of five and 15 years, giving birth every two or three years.

“This meeting provides a crucial opportunity to break the decades of disagreement that have characterised the IWC, and an opportunity to put whale conservation before politics. However giving a green light to whaling in this special place would be a step backwards, not forwards for the IWC,” Wendy Elliott said.

Source: WWF

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