Conservation news

Hunted orcas spotlight Caribbean whaling

  • Whalers from the Caribbean country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) routinely hunt small cetaceans, such as pilot whales, orcas, and dolphins.
  • Preliminary results suggest the meat of small cetaceans hunted in SVG may be contaminated with mercury.
  • SVG is the only Caribbean country with an exemption from the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial hunting of large whale species, which allows the country to hunt a small number of humpback whales each year.

Whalers from St. Vincent and the Grenadines recently caught four killer whales, raising health concerns over the consumption of cetacean meat as well as new scrutiny of the Caribbean country’s exemption from a global ban on commercial whaling.

Hunters from the town of Barrouallie on the main island of St. Vincent caught the four killer whales, or orcas (Orcinus orca), on July 12, according to I-Witness News. The outlet reports that the whalers said the animals measured 40, 29, 22, and 18 feet long.

The community of Barrouallie has been hunting small cetaceans like dolphins, porpoises, orcas, and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) since the early 1900s. These kinds of hunts take place in at least one other place in the Caribbean, although their scale and implications for cetacean conservation are not well understood, experts say.

Barrouallie whalers’ records suggest their catches may total several hundred small cetaceans per year, according to Russell Fielding, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, who studied the community’s whale hunts for his doctoral dissertation.

People process orca meat and blubber in the town of Barrouallie in July. Photo credit: http://www.iwnsvg.com.

So far, there’s no evidence that the Barrouallie hunts affect cetacean populations, Fielding told mongabay.com in an email.

“The population counts of most, if not all, cetacean species resident in the Caribbean are unknown. This makes it very hard to estimate the impact of a hunting operation like the one in Barrouallie,” Fielding said. “The best I can do with the available data is to look at catch vs. effort. If it’s taking more boats or more days at sea to catch the same number of whales, the population may be declining. So far we haven’t seen that happen.”

Fielding first started studying pilot whale hunts in Barrouallie in 2008 and has been out whaling with Barrouallie whalers dozens of times, he said. Although he wasn’t present for the recent orca hunt, he said he was on St. Vincent at the time, spoke with the harpooner a couple days afterward, and saw some of the blubber, meat, and teeth.

People prepare blubber from an orca in the town of Barrouallie, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in July. Photo credit: http://www.iwnsvg.com.

SVG’s other whale hunt

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a global ban on the commercial hunting of large whales in 1986. But it does not regulate the hunting of small cetaceans, including the recent orca killing. Nevertheless, the hunt has focused renewed attention on SVG’s status as a whaling nation that has been granted a controversial exemption from the IWC ban.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been targeted by whalers in SVG since the 1870s, when commercial whaling first began there. A century later, the whale-oil exporters are no longer in business, but a small humpback hunt has continued on the island of Bequia, primarily for domestic consumption of meat and blubber.

Since 1987, the country has received an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quota from the IWC, which is meant to allow indigenous peoples to continue catching small numbers of whales every year, despite the large-whale hunting ban.

Many anti-whaling activists are critical of SVG receiving an exemption meant to allow people to continue practicing traditional cultural activities given the country’s fairly short whaling history. They say that even SVG’s relatively small quota can harm whale populations.

According to IWC data, over the years whalers from St. Vincent and the Grenadines have landed or struck but lost a total of 38 humpback whales as well as two illegally targeted Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera brydei).

The offices of the country’s IWC commissioner and the head of its Fisheries Division did not respond to requests for comment. However, SVG has defended its ASW quota every five to six years for the past three decades, whenever it has had to be renewed. Most recently, at the 2012 meeting of the IWC, the country submitted a “Statement of Need” that claimed there were cultural, subsistence, and economic reasons why the ASW quota is necessary.

“The whalers are honored because whaling in Bequia is an old tradition that requires skill and bravery on the part of the whalers,” the statement says. “The islanders take pride in their success and welcome the contribution of meat and fat to the island diet.”

Meat from whales caught in Bequia’s hunts substitutes for imported animal protein, the document also asserts, saying “the meat from two whales substitute for 7% of the value of the imports in terms of foreign exchange savings. Foreign exchange savings from food produced locally are extremely important to island economies that are not self-sufficient in foodstuffs.”

The IWC found this statement of need compelling enough to renew SVG’s ASW quota, allowing the country to catch up to 24 humpback whales during the 2013 through 2018 seasons. The quota will come up for a vote again in 2017.

Anti-whaling advocates counter that the Bequian whale hunts are a practice driven by opportunistic fishermen, not traditional culture, which defies the ASW’s intent to support indigenous people who have a long and unbroken history of holding subsistence hunts or who have a pressing nutritional need for whale meat.

Sue Fisher, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute, told mongabay.com in an email that when the IWC granted St. Vincent and the Grenadines its ASW quota in 1987, it accepted the country’s assurances that the Bequian whaling operation would die with its last surviving harpooner. Since then, the IWC has renewed the country’s ASW quota seven times.

In 2002, two years after the old harpooner died, the IWC even doubled the country’s quota.

Fisher said Japan, a country that has been particularly bullish about continuing its whaling activities, has been propping up enough support for the practice to get Bequia’s ASW renewed again and again.

“If the [IWC] membership and attendance of a number of countries (mainly West African, Caribbean and South Pacific) had not been supported for years by Japan,” Fisher wrote to mongabay.com, “the Bequia hunt would probably not have secured the votes (a 3/4 majority) required to renew the quota at previous meetings.”

SVG isn’t alone in finding ways to skirt the ban on whaling. Iceland and Norway have lodged official objections to the IWC’s ban and continued commercial whaling activities, while Iceland and Japan have also continued to hunt whales by claiming it is for “research purposes.”

As for SVG’s hunts of smaller cetaceans, including the four orcas recently killed, Fisher said it may never be clear whether affect local populations because of the shortage of population and catch data. But she said that killing “a discrete group of orca may well have serious conservation implications.”

“I know of no nutritional justification for this take of orca given the availability of other non-marine mammal marine resources in St Vincent and do not believe that the hunt was conducted to advance any cultural heritage,” Fisher added.

A healthy catch?

Whether SVG’s whale catches provide a healthy source of food for the impoverished country’s citizens is another open question. Fielding’s current work focuses on mercury and other environmental contaminants that he and other scientists have been finding in the meat and blubber of whales and dolphins. He said that preliminary data indicate high levels of mercury in Barrouallie’s small-ceteacean catches.

Orca blubber awaits processing into processing into crisps and oil. Photo credit: www.iwnsvg.com

The effect of mercury on cetaceans is not well known, but in people the element is a well-known neurotoxicant. However, Fielding was quick to caution that it is unclear whether the Barrouallie catch poses a threat to public health.

“If these contaminants are present in high quantities and if people consume a lot of the food products derived from the whaling operation, there could be potential for a human health risk,” Fielding said.

If the levels are ultimately found to be so high that consumption is no longer recommended by the SVG Ministry of Health and the Environment, Barrouallie will certainly feel the impact, Fielding said. Whaling runs deep in the community, which is known as “Blackfish Town” after the name by which pilot whales are known to locals.

“The whale and dolphin hunting operation in Barrouallie is a major part of the village’s economy,” Fielding said. “Culturally, it’s the single most well-known attribute of the village within St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”

Orcas. Photo credit: Courtesy of Dr. Brandon Southall, NOAA/NMFS/OPR.