Brazil now a leader in whale-preservation efforts


In the three decades it took for this coastal outpost to earn a reputation as one of the world’s prime surfing destinations, Brazil performed a cool cutback on whaling.

The country rejected its harpoon-happy past and embraced a strict conservationist stance at home and in annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the UK-based global oversight body.

“Brazil has taken a leadership role,” says Daniel Morast, president of the International Wildlife Coalition, a non-governmental group headquartered in Massachusetts. “Mexico, too. It is the Latin bloc that is saying we need to take a tougher stand.”

Locals killed their last whale here in 1973. Between 1770 and 1950, an estimated 15,000 whales were harpooned off this coast of Santa Catarina state, located in southern Brazil. Most of those killed were southern right whales (Eubalaena australis).

Even after southern rights had been driven to near extinction, a fleet based in the northeastern Brazilian state of Paraíba continued to take an average of 610 smaller minke whales annually from 1966 to 1980. It did so with the full backing of Brazil’s government, which in 1972 cast a “no” vote against a failed U.S.-backed measure for an international whaling moratorium.

Today, whales are making a comeback. Still a far cry from the estimated 300,000 thought to inhabit the South Atlantic 400 years ago, southern right whales are now believed to number 7,500—more than double the 3,000 estimated in 1985. Many of them flock to this part of Brazil from June to November, in most cases to give birth and nurture their newborns. Surfers are no longer shocked to find themselves flanked by 15-meter, 30-ton behemoths as they paddle out for the ultimate wave.

The conservation tide turned slowly. Four volunteer biologists founded the non-governmental Right Whale Project in 1981. A year later, the IWC passed an international moratorium effective in 1986. Following the global trend, Brazil prohibited hunting in its waters in 1985. Two years ago the Right Whale Project helped persuade the federal government to declare a marine mammal sanctuary off an 80-mile (130-km) stretch of the Santa Catarina coast. Now Brazil is helping to forge a Southern Cone whale-protection treaty and to win IWC recognition for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.

Whale-conscious shipping

The cause of whale conservation also appears to be making an impression on Brazil’s private sector. A leading pulp and paper producer, Rio de Janeiro-based Aracruz Celulose, has agreed to alter its coastal shipping routes seasonally off the northeastern state of Bahia as it replaces trucking with marine transport. Aracruz is switching to marine transport to cut the cost of moving timber to its mills. It contracted a Bahia-based nonprofit group called the Humpback Whale Project to map out an alternative route for the six months when humpbacks frequent the region.

“Aracruz is a leading global company with important clients around the world,” says Alberto Carvalho de Oliveira Filho, the company’s manager for environment and industrial safety. “It would be bad to have the name of the company involved in ship strikes of whales.”

Whale conservation in the South Atlantic can be traced back three decades to the efforts of U.S. scientist Roger Payne at Argentina’s Peninsula Valdés. The founder of the Whale Conservation Institute (WCI) in Massachusetts, Payne helped pioneer the non-lethal study of whale behavior. He developed a technique for the identification of individuals—in the case of right whales by recording the distinctive patterns of the white callosities on their heads.

Argentine and Brazilian researchers are beginning to use a computer program that allows them to better compare their photo databases and to trade information about sightings of individual whales. Researchers in both countries are working to devise an effective way to tag whales to allow satellite tracking.

Brazil’s leading whale conservationist, José Truda Palazzo Jr., coordinator of the Imbituba-based Right Whale Project, honed his skills during a stint in Valdés in 1985. Truda’s Uruguayan counterpart, Rodrigo García Píngaro, president of the Organization for Cetacean Conservation in Arachania, Uruguay, made a similar pilgrimage before launching his efforts in 1995 with a study of former whaling communities on the Uruguayan coast.

Regional whale treaty?

Truda and García are working together to lobby for a tripartite whale-protection treaty that would also include Argentina. Since one government must take the lead in proposing the pact, activists are focusing their early efforts on Uruguay. “Uruguay is the best place because it has the smallest government bureaucracy,” says Truda. “The Brazilian government is sympathetic, but the bureaucracy is too big.”

Given the contagion from the economic crisis in neighboring Argentina, however, Uruguayan leaders can’t be blamed for seeming distracted when the subject turns to marine mammals. “It is really difficult to talk about whales right now,” García acknowledges.

Truda was a member of the Brazilian delegation to the most recent IWC convention, held last May in Shimonoseki, Japan. There, Brazil sponsored a proposal to establish a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary. It won a 28-18 majority but failed to achieve the three-quarters margin needed for approval.

Brazil plans to reintroduce the measure at the body’s next meeting, slated for Berlin this June, says Hadil da Rocha Vianna, Brazilian commissioner for the IWC and chief of the Brazilian foreign-ministry division that deals with marine, Antarctic and space issues.

With staunch opposition coming from such whaling countries as Japan and Norway, approval seems unlikely. Morast and other activists accuse Japan of lining up the votes of small, non-whaling countries in the Caribbean and Africa by administering generous dollops of foreign aid. Indeed, Truda believes it is possible Japan eventually could garner enough votes to overturn the global moratorium. Already, Japan, Norway and other countries have found loopholes that allow them to continue hunting.

- Bill Hinchberger

Alberto Carvalho de Oliveira Filho
Environment and Industrial Safety
Aracruz Celulose
Rodovia Aracruz, Brazil
Hadil da Rocha Vianna
Brazilian Commissioner, IWC
Chief of Sea, Antarctic and Space Division
Brazilian Foreign Ministry
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 411-6282
Marcia Engel
General Director
Humpback Whale Project
Caravelas, Brazil
Rodrigo García
Organization for Cetacean Conservation
Arachania, Uruguay
Tel: +0479 9829; 099 124144
José Truda
Right Whale Project
Imbituba, Brazil
Tel: +(55 48) 9973-0977; 9982-5157