Tag Archives: tourism

Don’t feed the dolphins – they can learn bad habits from each other

Wild dolphin visits boat. Picture by Gail Broady on FlickrYou’re out on a boat fishing and a dolphin appears beside you.  It looks at you sideways, with those intelligent eyes.  What harm could there be from giving it a bit of fish?  Maybe it’ll stick around. You toss it over to the animal.  Yum.

What could be the harm in this?

Sadly, the answer is: quite a lot.

Studies into provisional feeding (humans giving animals food in the wild) have shown that animals can become dependent on these food handouts. The classic example is the famous Monkey Mia, where visitors have been able to feed local dolphins by hand for over 40 years.  In the 1960s, fishers returning to Monkey Mia began sharing their catch with some local dolphins.  Over the years, the dolphins’ trust grew and several more were fed at the jetty and later the beach.  As increasing numbers of visitors came to see the dolphins, news of the phenomenon spread.

Yet as the practice grew, some of the dolphins came to rely on hand-outs and began to lose their wild instincts, such as their ability to hunt.  Calves of some overfed dolphins even starved to death because of neglect by their mothers.  Between 1987 and 1994, 92% (11 of 12) of nursing calves born to provisioned (hand-fed) females died.   Since 1995, when the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) changed the feeding program, only 23% (3 of 13) of calves born to provisioned females have died, one of whom was killed by a shark.  Careful management means that the dolphins can continue to be able to support themselves naturally, and pass on these survival skills to the next generation.

Bad Habit

It is illegal under state and federal law in Australia to feed wild dolphins.  The managed feeding of wild dolphins occurs in only a few places, where interactions are licensed and subject to stringent regulations so as to protect the animals.

Monkey Mia taught us why.  And another recent study from Cockburn Sound near Perth emphasises it.

Bec Donaldson from Murdoch University’s Conservation Medicine Program started researching the Cockburn Sound dolphins in 1993, focusing on social ecology.  Further research was carried out until 2003 by Hugh Finn of the University’s Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU).  The 80km2, semi-enclosed bay south of Fremantle includes Perth’s main industrial area, a naval base, and important recreational and commercial fisheries. There are also about 75 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins resident year-round.

Over the years, the researchers collected information on illegal feeding of the dolphins by recreational fishers in the area.  The number of dolphins ‘begging’ for food increased from one individual at first (‘Touch’) to fourteen (especially males, I might add).  How?  Associates of beggars learned how to do it themselves.  Dolphins were more likely to become beggars if they spent more time in areas with lots of recreational boats, and associated with other begging dolphins.

Dolphins are social animals, and can learn from each other.  Even bad behaviours.  So what?

Begging is not a good thing to learn.  The researchers also found that dolphins who had learned to beg from humans had higher rates of injury from boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.  They became conditioned to human interactions.  One dolphin, ‘Hook’, disappeared after eight years of begging, in which his behaviour changed dramatically.  He became a loner and started travelling  to beg from boats far out of his home range.  He hasn’t been seen since 2008-9.

A community education campaign in the area in 2008 reduced the amount of illegal feeding, but it hasn’t stopped entirely.

What to do?

Managers need to take into account that dolphins can potentially learn harmful behaviours from each other socially.  More research must be conducted on individual animals to determine what factors may influence this.

Secondly, we as the public need to be aware that – no matter how cute they are and how harmless it may seem – feeding animals in the wild is just not good for them.  Don’t do it.  If you’re out on the water and a dolphin pops up beside you that’s great… In fact it’s pretty awesome!  But please think about the potential effect you could have before tossing into that grinning mouth a big delicious fish.

Link to the scientific paper:

Donaldson, R., Finn, H., Bejder, L., Lusseau, D., Calver, M. (2012), The social side of human–wildlife interaction: wildlife can learn harmful behaviours from each other. Animal Conservation. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2012.00548.x

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Greenland kills whales to feed tourists

Firstly let me say that I am against whaling, and I work as a marine conservationist.  Therefore my opinion may be a little bit biased.  However, I also believe that I am not in the minority, and that there are many substantial arguments against whaling.  With that in mind…

Whale being pulled into ship. Image: WDCS

Greenland is killing whales to feed tourists – and wants more

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has conducted an undercover investigation in Greenland, where they found that whales caught under subsistence hunting rules (hunting by local people for their own food needs) are being served in dishes for tourists.

Restaurants were targeting visitors to the country with menus of bowhead and other whale meat. Supermarkets were also openly selling endangered fin whale and other whale meats, freely available for tourists to buy.  (By the way, if you buy whale meat for export and bring it back to the UK, EU or US, you risk arrest for importing an internationally protected species.  So you shouldn’t do it anyway.)

There is an international ban (via the International Whaling Commission, IWC) on commercial whaling.  But Greenland (a Danish overseas territory) has basically undermined this ban by selling whale meat to tourists, from whales it is allowed to kill solely for the nutritional needs of local indigenous people .

I’d like to just highlight this a little more.  The phrase “when the meat and products of such whales are to be used exclusively for local consumption” is understood by the IWC to mean:

(1) the personal consumption of whale products for food, fuel, shelter, clothing, tools or transportation by participants in the whale harvest; (2) the barter, trade or sharing of whale products in their harvested form with relatives of the participants in the harvest, with others in the local community or with persons in locations other than the local community with whom local residents share familial, social, cultural or economic ties. A generalised currency is involved in this barter and trade, by the predominant portion of the products from such whales are ordinarily directly consumed or utilised in their harvested form within the local community; and (3) The making and selling of handicraft articles from whale products, when the whale is harvested for the purposes defined in (1) and (2) above. Source

The selling of whale meat to tourists clearly isn’t covered by this definition.

Anyway… At the IWC meeting in Panama in July, Denmark wants to demand an increase to its whale catches in Greenland, to meet the needs of the local people.  But WDCS chief executive, Chris Butler-Stroud, said:  “The Danish government’s claims that Greenland needs to kill more whales for nutritional and cultural needs is laughable.  Who is this meat really for?  Greenland’s native-born population has increased by around just 9.9% in the last 24 years and yet, the request for more large whales by Greenland in the same period has increased by 89%!  Even the number of licensed subsistence hunters in Greenland has declined between 1993 and 2010 by a massive 49%. Our investigation report shows that this demand for more whale meat is clearly driven by the commercial consumer market, not by aboriginal needs.”

The proposed increase would include catching up to 19 endangered fin whales a year (almost double from current levels) and increase the number of humpbacks killed without a review for at least six years.

But there clearly isn’t the level of subsistence ‘need’ in Greenland that both Greenland and the Danish government are trying make a case for.

“We believe that this, together with the findings of the WDCS investigation should result in any request for the killing of even higher numbers of whales by Greenland being rejected and the situation thoroughly reviewed by the IWC,” said Butler-Stroud.

The research by WDCS and the Animal Welfare Institute found that 24 out of 31 restaurants visited, contacted or researched online offered whale meat to tourists. The groups said that meals available to tourists included whale burgers, buffets with whale meat for cruise ship passengers, whale pasta and Thai and sushi dishes. They said a significant proportion of the estimated 200,000 meals served to tourists in the country each year contained whale meat.

See more details at WDCS.

Fin whale on sale at Uummannak braettet (local market). Image: WDCS

But you shouldn’t eat whale meat anyway

It makes me angry to hear that more whales are being killed to feed tourists.  I can see why some subsistence whaling is allowed for cultural and nutritional needs.  But I still have a lot of issues with it, not least due to the kinds of corruption of the practice that has been seen here in Greenland. Subsistence hunting is difficult to control, controversial and basically assists commercial whaling interests.  See this article by WDCS on the main issues.  That being said, if the Inuit have excess whale meat, then I don’t see a problem with them selling it on.  They are probably not the drivers of this commercial industry; the danger comes from giving excess whale meat a commercial value that extends beyond what can be consumed by indigenous populations.  Also from the blurred line between local, aboriginal and visitor.

Secondly, I don’t get why people coming to the country are eating whale meat at all.  Travellers like to try out the local cuisine, yes.  But whale meat is not eaten by the greater proportion of Greenland’s population, so is it really ‘local cuisine’?  It is eaten only because it is the best nutrition that some indigenous peoples can get.

Most people prefer not to eat whale meat, and I don’t blame them.  Whether it’s for moral, cultural or health reasons, whale meat is generally not top choice on the menu.  If whale meat was on the menu back home, would you eat it?  I suggest probably not.  It’s the novelty of the thing that convinces people they should try it out, just once.  Even a good friend of mine with a Biology degree tried whale in Iceland.  As I expressed my shock, she explained that it was because “…you have to try everything once.  It’s part of visiting other places.  And they’re either going to ban whaling or run out anyway so I wanted to try it before it’s gone.”

I turned away in disgust.

This is why there is still demand for whale meat, and why whaling nations can still sell it.  Even when their own population doesn’t eat it. Tourism dollars are on the increase as more people travel, and more travel to ‘exotic’ destinations as well (i.e. different from home).

But if you just came back  from a safari, would you want to eat lion, cheetah or elephant?  Would you want to eat orangutan, or panda?  Whales are protected under international law.  Even those in reasonable abundance – like the Minke – I still wouldn’t want to eat, for many reasons (cruelty of hunting, toxin accumulation, unsustainability are some).  Why would you want to step off a whale watching boat and eat whale?

Eating whale meat as a tourist is supporting whaling.

It something that I cannot understand, and I cannot approve of anyone eating whale that doesn’t require this food in order to live.

So please, please, don’t believe that just because you are visiting another country, you need to try everything that’s on the menu.  You don’t.  You will survive just fine without it.

Unlike whales.

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Watch Out, Whales About!

It’s that time of year again

In honour of IFAW’s National Whale Day today, I decided to celebrate the fact that the annual Humpback Whale migration has returned to Australia.  They’ve been spotted from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast in the East, and Augusta on the West Coast.  And the season is just beginning.

Humpback whales migrate annually from their winter feeding grounds in the krill-rich Antarctic to warmer waters where they breed and give birth.  In Australia we are fortunate that the whale migration comes closer to shore than most places in the Southern Hemisphere.  The best place to see the migration on the East Coast is either on a dedicated whale-watching tour or (from personal experience) North Stradbroke Island in Queensland, where the whales are forced closer to land by the current they follow North.  I haven’t been out Humpback whale watching on the West Coast yet, but I’ve spent some time studying Humpback whales as a volunteer for the University of Queensland, and I can tell you firsthand that it is truly amazing to see these animals in the wild.  Around 13-17,000 whales are expected to make the trip along the East Coast this year, so there are plenty to go around!  Most will return the same way from September onwards, mums playing with their new calves and males still trying to impress the females with their songs.  In fact, I personally think it’s better to see them on their southward migrations, since the whales aren’t quite so intent on reaching colder waters as the warmer ones earlier in the year!

But please keep your distance

The theme of this year’s National Whale Day is awareness.  According to IFAW there has been a rise in incidents involving deliberate or accidental harassment of whales and dolphins in our waters, and injuries from vessel strikes.  Come on guys, pay attention.  During migration the whales will encounter many dangers, mostly man-made.  These include fish traps, shark nets, strikes from pleasure vessels and increased shipping traffic hazards. As well as killer whale attacks and other nasty things.  That’s why it’s important to respect distancing regulations, keep your speed and your noise down, and watch out for whales when you’re out on the water.

Whales are big.  They are heavy (did you see what happened when one breached on a yacht not so long ago?).  Whales can also be unpredictable, so anyone who gets too close is putting themselves and the whale at risk.  Boats are required to keep at least 100 metres away from any whales; jet skis and other personal watercraft must stay up to 300 metres away.   In the whale protection zone of the Whitsunday, Lindeman and Gloucester Islands groups (where many whales deliver their calves), no boat can go closer than 300 metres.  The maximum penalty for intentionally moving closer to a whale than permitted under the conservation plan is $12,000, and on-the-spot fines ranging from $300-$500 may also apply for various contraventions.  The rules for ‘special interest’ whales like Migaloo or the white whale calf seen last year, are even stricter: no-one can bring a boat or jet ski closer than 500m or fly an aircraft closer than 2,000ft to these whales without written permission.  The maximum penalty for getting too close to a white whale is $16,500.

I don’t have that sort of cash lying around, do you?

There’s nothing quite like seeing wild animals in the wild, especially some as magnificent as the Humpback whales.  After all, they’re the iconic species that helped start the global movement against whaling and towards protection of our natural environment.  So love them, get out there and watch them, but please give them the space they need.

Humpback whale fluke up dive.  Image from University of Queensland

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