Compartir esta página!

X

Comparte esta página con tus amigos en las redes sociales:

Portugal: The Azores Whalers turn their skills to whale watching

La traducción al español de esta página estará disponible próximamente.

History and context

The Azores archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 1,360 km west of the European Mainland.  The volcanic islands, first inhabited by Portuguese settlers in the 15th century, are rugged and remote, challenging inhabitants to eke out a living from the land and sea.  In the 18th century American whaling ships (often termed ‘Yankee’ whaling ships) began to roam the world’s oceans, frequently calling in at a port on the island of Faial in the Azores. By 1768 as many as 200 whaling ships of different origins were calling in at Faial each year. They were attracted by the resident sperm whale populations around the islands, as well as the convenience of a mid-ocean port where vessels could be repaired and stores replenished1

Inhabitants of the near-by island of Pico took note of the demand for whale products and decided to launch their own shore-based whaling industry from the village of Lajes, a distance of less than 5 nautical miles from the main port at Faial.  Whaling commenced from Lajes in 1867, and continued for over a century.  At its peak the industry involved 22 canoes and 98 men organized under seven community whaling companies2.  Lookouts were posted in a network of stone watch towers perched high on the cliffs around the island. When sperm whales were sighted, they would signal the whalers, who would set out on canoes with sails, lowering the sails as they drew close to the whales, and approaching stealthily by paddle-power to launch hand-thrown harpoons.  From the 1930’s onward motorized launches were used to take the canoes to within range of the whales, but the final approach and harpooning was conducted in the same traditional manner.  The men involved in this dangerous practice became experts in understanding the distribution and behaviour of the whales, predicting where they would surface next, as their lives, and livelihoods depended on being in the right place at the right moment with their harpoons. 

The high value of whale oil, particularly spermacetti oil from sperm whale heads provided a valuable source of income for the inhabitants of Pico – particularly those of the village of Lajes, which also became known as A Vila Baleeia (Whaling Village). The different whaling companies were in steep competition with each other, but all had open access to the whales. Those with the greatest speed and accuracy on a given day were rewarded, as once the first harpoons were thrown, the rest of the whale pod would usually quickly disperse.  In this sense, the industry was self-regulating and appeared to be sustainable, as catches per unit of effort did not decline1. Gradually, the demand for whale oil decreased, and by 1982, when Portugal agreed to support the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling, the whalers of Lajes were ready to lay down their harpoons.

Just a few years later, however, a new opportunity for a different type of whale hunting presented itself.  Tourism in the Azores was on the increase, and whale watching was a new form of marine tourism that was taking off in coastal areas around the world3.  In 1987 The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the European Community supported feasibility studies to investigate the potential for whale watching in the Azores.  In1989, both foreign and local entrepreneurs launched whale-watch operations from the port of Lajes. While sperm whales were the original target of these ventures, the diversity of cetaceans around the islands (confirmed now at 28 species4) and their reliable year-round presence allowed the industry to expand from 50 tourists in 1991, to 4000 in 1997, and an estimated 12,000 in 20112.  By 1998 eight tour operators were running tours from the village of only 400 permanent inhabitants, with some running two boats, each making up to two trips per day during the peak summer season.  The traditional watch towers used to alert whalers to their prey were reoccupied: Once again, the hunt was on.

Volver al comienzo ↑

Regulations: consultation and adaptation

The rapid success of the industry in Lajes, led to fierce competition and rivalry between tour operators.  In 1995, fearing that the increasing numbers of vessels pursuing whales and dolphins around the island could have a negative impact on their targets, the local government collaborated with researchers and NGO’s to begin the process of drafting local whale watching regulations5.  In 1998, a conference was hosted to review the first draft guidelines, inviting whale watch operators and other stakeholders to consult with the local government, researchers and international NGO’s who had drafted the first guidelines based on those designed for similar species elsewhere in the world. 

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the tour operators present felt the draft guidelines did not go far enough to protect local whale and dolphin populations.  These included ex-whalers, who felt that their traditional knowledge of the animals and their behaviour gave them a better understanding of the whales’ vulnerability than other operators1. They argued for greater protection of sperm whale nursery groups through the creation of protected areas, and specification of the types of engines (and engine noise) that could be tolerated around the whales. While their concerns were partially taken into account in the legislation that was first passed in 1999, the ex-whalers were left feeling that their traditional knowledge had not weighed as significantly as that of researchers and NGOs1.

A 2002 study found that only 54% of whale watch vessels were fully compliant with the 1999 regulations, that  sperm whales increased their swimming speed and aerial behaviour when vessels approached too quickly or recklessly, and that sperm whale groups with females, immature whales and calves increased their rate of surfacing and breathing in the presence of tour boats6.  These findings confirmed the ex-whalers’ claims that there were nursery groups of sperm whales around the islands that required stricter regulations and precautionary measures1.

Regulations were revised in 2003, and again in 2005 to take into account some of these concerns. The regulations, which are still in force today, require all tours to have a marine biologist or animal behaviour expert on board, and prohibit swimming with cetaceans with the exception of a few dolphin species. The 2005 regulations also include the following changes from the 1999 regulations:5

  • the prohibition of flying platforms and jet-skis;
  • the inclusion of lookouts on the staff crew (except when they have another way to detect cetaceans);
  • the prohibition of SONAR use in the proximity of cetaceans;
  • the prohibition of vessels within a 500m of an animal or group of animals resting at the surface or of females in labor;
  • A minimum approach distance of 100m for calves;
  • A maximum of 3 boats within a 500m radius of the same group of cetaceans;
  •  A maximum viewing period of 15 minutes with one group of animals.

Volver al comienzo ↑

Lessons learned

The conversion of a local whaling industry to a whale watching industry in the Azores is often showcased as a prime example of how cetaceans can offer value to a community through tourism. Indeed, research indicates that inhabitants of Lajes are satisfied with the income that whale watching generates for them and their families2.  At the same time, however, there are lessons that have been learned and aspects of the development of the industry that could have been improved:

Strengths:

  • Whale watching in the Azores has benefitted from the traditional knowledge of ex-whalers, who had a system in place for spotting whales from shore, and a well-developed understanding for how to operate vessels around whales without ‘spooking’ them.
  • The islands’ whaling history, while at first reviled by those promoting whale watching tourism, has become a celebrated part of the local culture and identity. A whaling museum and various attractions around the islands have found a way to recognise the whaling past, while looking toward a whale-watching future.
  • Unlike the Canary islands, where whale watch tourism became highly unsustainable through unregulated growth in a mass tourism destination7,8 , the industry in the Azores has been limited in growth, to a certain extent, by the remoteness, seasonal restrictions, and lack of tourism infrastructure on the islands of Pico and Faial.  This has been a blessing for the animals, and allowed the industry to grow at a more controlled pace, with opportunities for adaptive regulation.
  • Whale watch tourists appear to be extremely satisfied with their experiences in the Azores, reporting a mean satisfaction score of 8.43/10 in a recent study9.  These tourists report that the four most important elements of a tour for them are to: see whales in a responsible way; the operator’s commitment to the environment; knowledge and information from the guide; and the ability to see at least one whale9.  This bodes well for the potential for tourists to exercise positive impact on operators.

Challenges:

  • As whale watching was being established and regulations were being negotiated, ex whalers initially felt under-valued, when their traditional knowledge could have helped to shape a more sustainable approach.
  • The industry is seasonal, with tourists generally only visiting in the warmer summer months.  Whale watch tour operators and providers of associated services have to find alternative sources of income in the off-season2.
  • Not all operators have benefited equally from the development of the industry with a few (partially foreign owned) operators apparently having gained the lion’s share of the market and associated support industries1,2.
  • The carefully drafted regulations are not always as effective as hoped, with studies showing, for example, that Risso’s dolphins are still negatively impacted by whale watch vessels that disturb their rest period on 19% of observed days during the high tourist season10. There is clearly room for further adaptive management, accompanied by more effective surveillance and enforcement of regulations.

Volver al comienzo ↑

Referencias

Mostrar/Ocultar referencias
  1. Neves-Graça, K. Revisiting the tragedy of the commons: ecological dilemmas of whale watching in the Azores. Human Organization 63, 289-300 (2004).
  2. Silva, L. How ecotourism works at the community-level: the case of whale-watching in the Azores. Current Issues in Tourism 18, 196-211, doi:10.1080/13683500.2013.786027 (2015).
  3. Hoyt, E. Whale Watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding socioeconomic benefits. 1-256 (International Fund For Animal Welfare, London, 2001).
  4. ICES.   212 (ICES).
  5. Oliveira, C. et al. Whale watching management in the Azores: An updated review of the regulations. . 4 (SC/59/WW7, Anchorage, Alaska, 2007).
  6. Magalhães, S. et al. Short-term reactions of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) to whale-watching vessels in the Azores. Aquatic Mammals 28, 267-274 (2002).
  7. Neves-Graca, K. Cashing in on Cetourism: A Critical Ecological Engagement with Dominant E-NGO Discourses on Whaling, Cetacean Conservation, and Whale Watching. Antipode 42, 719-741, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00770.x (2010).
  8. Hoyt, E. Sustainable ecotouris on Atlantic islands, with special reference to whale watching, marine protected areas and sanctuaries for cetaceans. Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 105B, 141-154 (2005).
  9. Bentz, J., Lopes, F., Calado, H. & Dearden, P. Enhancing satisfaction and sustainable management: Whale watching in the Azores. Tourism Management 54, 465-476 (2016).
  10. Visser, F. et al. Risso's dolphins alter daily resting pattern in response to whale watching at the Azores. Marine Mammal Science 27, 366-381, doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2010.00398.x (2011).

Volver al comienzo ↑

Compartir esta página!

X

Comparte esta página con tus amigos en las redes sociales: