Whale tourism faces death threat

Executive urged to act as study highlights harm done by plastic rubbish, pollution, shipping and NATO naval exercises

By ALAN CRAWFORD*

GLASGOW (25 July 2004) -- A minke whale has been spotted in the Sound and the excitement back ashore in Tobermory when the news is called in to the tour office is palpable. This is Mull on one of the busiest days of the year -- the annual gathering for the Highland games -- so a short notice explaining the sighting is placed outside the office down by the harbourside.

It's an additional enticement, if one is needed, for the growing number of visitors who come to Mull to observe the plentiful whales, dolphins and porpoises which inhabit the remarkably rich waters around the island.

Whale and dolphin-watching has become a major business in this part of the Hebrides over the last 10 years, overtaking fishing in terms of revenue .

But many among the fledgling businesses fear that their efforts to encourage sustainable ecotourism are being put at risk as a result of the growing threats posed to cetaceans in these waters, from noise to pollution and increased traffic.

The Tobermory-based Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), which monitors cetacean populations and the threats they face, is calling for the Scottish Executive to introduce a coherent marine strategy, backed by tough legislation, to help ensure the future health of the seas around Scotland's coast.

That view is about to be echoed by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is to call for a tightening up of marine legislation in a report out tomorrow based on five years' research and consultation. The study is likely to put additional pressure on the Executive to act following its own consultation on developing a "strategic framework for the marine environment", which ends next weekend.

The stakes are high for the seven or eight boat operators who make their living taking visitors out to look for cetaceans and other sealife from Tobermory, as well as the many others which are springing up all along the west coast. These waters are recognised as offering among the finest cetacean watching in Europe -- 24 of the world's 83 species of whale and dolphin are found there -- largely due to the vast amounts of plankton which flourish in the mixture of cool Arctic waters and currents naturally warmed by the Gulf Stream. Yet the threats to marine life are numerous and growing.

Last week in Sorrento, Italy, the International Whaling Commission only just resisted intense pressure to remove the 18-year-old ban on commercial whaling pushed by countries including Norway and Iceland. It is t hought the whales seen off Mull are part of the same highly mobile North East Atlantic minke population that frequents Icelandic and Norwegian waters.

In Hebridean waters, cetaceans have to contend with the controversial passage of tankers through the Minch and, perhaps, powerful low-frequency sonar tests which NATO ships are thought to be conducting off the west coast. There is anecdotal evidence that whale sightings become less prolific during the joint military exercises which are conducted off Scotland three times a year.

But perhaps the deadliest threat of all is the huge volume of rubbish dumped at sea.

In February 2003, a rare Cuvier's beaked whale was washed up dead on the western coast of Mull with its stomach and intestines packed full of shredded black bin liners.

Last month, a 24ft minke whale was found lying in the shallows off Harris in some distress with a nylon cord entangled in its upper jaw. Rescuers managed to cut the chord and eventually helped it out to sea.

Of the 70 whales between stranded in Scotland between 1992 and 2000, 15 died of entanglement, according to the HWDT.

Established 10 years ago to conduct research, provide education and work towards conservation of cetaceans, the HWDT is the only body in Scotland monitoring all these threats, with the help of its 53ft research yacht, the Silurian. It was at one time used for drug-running before being impounded and then converted for filming during the BBC television series Blue Planet.

"We are finding incredible stuff. It's not just fishing nets, it's packing tape and other forms of plastic. Marine litt er is one of the main problems," said Cally Fleming, HWDT project director. We are squeezed into her tiny office, reminiscent of a ship's cabin, at the back of the HWDT shop on Tobermory's colourful main street.

She sees a single Marine Act, superseding the 85 different pieces of legislation governing the ocean, and a lead body, as a potential solution. The Marine Task Force, an umbrella body for environmental groups with a maritime remit, is to start lobbying MSPs in September.

Fleming, whose family comes from Mull, regards the ensuing fight as vital not only for the cetaceans, but for the future of the island. Whale-watching is worth some £8 million annually to Mull and Iona; for Scotland as a whole the figure is around £12m.

She said: "We only hear about the decline and depopulation and everyt hing going downhill. But here's a good news story -- whale-watching and ecotourism is booming, not just in the summer but in the colder months as well. There's tremendous potential to grow the industry, but only if we are aware and address some of the threats that are out there. It can all look rosy on a beautiful day like today, but there are threats even round here."

Mull can rightly claim to be the home of whale-watching in Scotland, since it was here in 1989 that the naturalist Richard Fairbairns pioneered taking people out to see the minke whales which feed in the Sound. He established the Mull Cetacean Project to study the animals, which grew into the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and Sea Life Surveys, which bills itself as "the UK's most experienced whale and dolphin watch".

Fairbairns' s son Brennen has taken over the running of Sea Life Surveys, which now has three boats. He and his fellow skipper Hamish Crosbie work 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week during the season, fulfilling many people's lifetime goal to see a whale or dolphin.

But the real importance of the trips is to raise awareness and educate people about cetaceans, Brennen said.

The whales and ecosystem that supports them remain fragile, and are getting more so, partly as a result of the increase in popularity of boat tours. Yet, while countries such as New Zealand and Canada have strict legislation governing marine activities, the codes of conduct in Scotland are all voluntary meaning the situation requires careful monitoring.

*Special Correspondent for the Glasgow Sunday Herald, Scotland
http://www.whaledolphintrust.co.uk http://www.sealifesurveys.com



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