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Whale watchers demand voice at world whaling body

20th June 2003


Planer Ark


Whale watchers say their industry, now worth over $1.5 billion per year, has come of age, and want recognition at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) - to the consternation of whaling nations.

The International Alliance for Commercial Whale Watchers (IACWW) made its first appearance as an observer at the annual IWC meeting this week and called for the body to recognize their industry, and that whaling threatens it.
They also want the commission to tackle conservation issues, such as pollution, which pose a risk to whales.

"We see ourselves as the new whalers," Frank Future, the Australian head of the fledgling IACWW, told Reuters.

Whaling nations, led by Japan and Norway, insisting the IWC should stick to its original aim of deciding hunting quotas. They say conservation and whale watching are side issues.

Future says his industry is worth more than $1.5 billion and is growing at about 12 percent per year, defying a global economic downturn and a depressed travel market since the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Wally Stone, chairman of Whale Watch and a member of New Zealand's delegation, also says visitor numbers to the New Zealand town of Kaikoura, a major hub for whale watching, show the pulling power of whales.

In 1986, 4,000 tourists made their way to Kaikoura. Now, the town accommodates just under one million a year.

By contrast, say environmentalists, whale hunting is a small, declining industry, propped up with subsidies. The industry in Norway, which still hunts about 700 whales for commercial gain, is worth about $8 million per year.

Japan, which hunts about 700 whales in what it calls scientific research, sells its quota for about $40 million a year. Much of the catch finds its way to shops and restaurants.

Whalers argue the comparison is a false one, as whale watchers include flight tickets and accommodation in their calculation of the size of the industry.

"If you just looked at the tickets sold for watching, it would still be a tiny industry. We could also include the cost of boat building," said Rune Frovik, secretary of the High North Alliance, a Norwegian-based lobby group representing whalers and other Arctic communities.

Whaling nations also say tourist boats upset whales, but watchers say cowboy operators are a declining and tiny minority.

Future hopes his umbrella organization can help set worldwide standards, such as keeping 100 meters from whales.

"Consumers too are growing in awareness and they want to know they are not causing damage. We can set best practices and compete at the same time," Future said.

Story by Philip Blenkinsop