Four Decades Studying and Conserving the Southern Right Whales of Península Valdés, Argentina

The Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB) is an Argentine non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of whales and their environment through research and education. It was founded in Buenos Aires in 1996 when it established an affiliation with the Whale Conservation Institute (WCI) from Massachussetts to conduct the Right Whale Program in Argentina.

Began in 1970, the Right Whale Program has become the longest continuous study of a large whale based on following the lives of known individuals. Its main objective is to monitor the status of the right whale population at Península Valdés. It has provided science based data to government authorities that allowed them to make sound conservation decisions to protect right whales and their habitat.

STUDYING THE SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

A mother/calf pair photographed during the 2008 aerial survey at Peninsula Valdes

For centuries, right whales were hunted mercilessly. Early whalers called them “the right whales to kill” because they are slow, have a thick blubber layer that produces abundant oil, and float when dead. During the 18th and 19th centuries, North American and European whalers killed at least 150,000 southern right whales, and by the early 20th century, there were as few as 300 individuals in the southern hemisphere. Southern right whales were protected internationally in 1935. This ban on right whale commercial whaling was essential for their recovery. It was a new light for the hope of the species’ survival. As whalers stopped hunting right whales, the species populations in southern hemisphere waters have recovered substantially, although they are still below their pre-whaling sizes.

At present, our catalog contains over 2,700 photo-identified individual right whales from Península Valdés, Argentina. Important findings on the biology of right whales were obtained using benign, non-lethal techniques. Among other things, we now know that females reproduce on average once every three years, their mean age at first parturition is 9 years, the annual rate of population increase is 6.8%, juveniles use breeding grounds to socialize with other juveniles and to potentially learn important behaviors, and right whales can shift their distribution along the shorelines of Península Valdés over decades.

Although southern right whale populations are recovering, many threats affect their present and future in our oceans. Like other large cetaceans, right whales die every year from entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. Right whales off Península Valdés have fewer calves than expected following years of low krill abundance in the waters off South Georgia, when sea surface temperatures are higher than normal. Global warming is melting Antarctic ice sheets and could have profound effects on krill and as a consequence on their predators including the great whales. Kelp gulls at Peninsula Valdes have learned to eat the skin and blubber of living right whales. The whales change their behavior and increase the amount of time they spend in more energetic behaviors. Gull attacks produce skin lesions on the whales’ back that could be the entrance to bacterial or viral infections that could affect their health.
Most importantly, southern right whales are dying in unprecedented numbers on their nursery ground at Península Valdés in what are the most extreme mortality events ever observed in any baleen whale. Until recently, this was considered a healthy and robust population. However, the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program (of which ICB is an active member) has studied over 420 whales that died in recent years, the majority of which were calves less than three-months old. In view of these deaths, it seems that this whale population and its ecosystem may be less healthy and robust than previously thought. This reinforces the importance of continuing our research and monitoring efforts to help understand the population trends and their causes. Whaling still occurs. And we need to ensure that not one whale will be taken by whalers for any purpose in what is an unnecessary hunt of the most magnificent of all sea creatures.

Our research achievements include, among others:

  • 40 years of continued scientific data about the biology of the southern right whale in Argentina, documenting a population increase from 400 whales (1970) to over 6.000 (2010).
  • 2.700 photoidentified individuals, with over 150.000 photographs taken.
  • Examination of 428 right whales that died during a series of high mortality events from 2005-2010.
  • 16 years of continued monitoring of the frequency of gull attacks on the whales at Península Valdés (since 1995).
  • Documenting long-range movements of right whales including the movement of whales up to 4.424 km.
  • Determining the genetic differentiation of the Patagonian population of right whales from other species of right whales in the northern hemisphere and from populations of southern right whales found off South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Finding that Patagonian right whales have fewer calves than expected following years of low krill abundance on their feeding ground off South Georgia, indicating that whales could experience reproductive failures if krill abundance declines in response to global warming.
  • Conducting the first study to determine the effects of swim-with-whale programs on the behavior and movements of southern right whales.
  • Discovering that right whale calves inherit their foraging locations from their mothers and thus could have difficulty in dealing with regional changes in prey abundance.
  • Determining the foraging patterns of individual whales by measuring changes in the stable carbon isotopes ratios in the baleen of right whales that die at Peninsula Valdes.
  • A record of human impacts on this whale population: ship collisions, entanglements, effects of tourism.
  • Over 60 scientific publications and presentations at meetings can be found at http://www.icbargentina.com.ar/downloads/Listado%20publicaciones%20ICB-WCI.pdf

NETWORKING FOR MARINE CONSERVATION

Right whales needed an organization like ICB in Argentina with a strong voice and a clear message to find solutions to their conservation needs. ICB works to provide scientific information to help Provincial and National government authorities to make sound conservation decisions to protect the marine environment, promote compliance with current legislation and the creation of new and updated conservation laws when needed, and encourage active participation of the communities in the protection of whales and the oceans.

Whales migrate, so our conservation efforts must be reflected at the international level where relevant decisions about the future of whales are taken. Since 2005, ICB has participated actively at the annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Thanks to the work done by governments and the NGO community, the Latin American countries have consolidated a strong negotiating block inside the IWC, that is highly committed to the conservation and non-lethal use of whales, and is playing a key role in the negotiation process on the future of the Commission. ICB believes that this is the time to work hard to maintain and strengthen the moratorium on commercial whaling and to stop “scientific” whaling, two matters of special concern to us. To contribute with cetacean conservation networking at a regional level, ICB created the website www.Mardecetaceos.net, an information network on management and non-lethal use of cetaceans with over 20 participating NGOs from Latin America.

Our conservation achievements include, among others:

  • ICB co-organized the first two meetings to discuss the problem of gull harassment of the whales at Peninsula Valdes and produced an Action Plan to find a solution and minimize the problem.
  • ICB organized the First International Workshop on Management and Non-lethal Use of Whales. We produced a document with government, NGO and whalewatch company representatives from 14 countries that was presented to the International Whaling Commission by the Argentine Delegation.
  • Since 2006, ICB is an acredited NGO at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and works actively to end whaling in international waters.
  • In 2004, ICB organized a workshop to update whalewatching regulations at Peninsula Valdes. In 2006, a process was initiated by the Provincial government to develop a new and relevant law, which was institued in 2008 (Law #5714).
  • ICB promoted the creation of a Network of over 40 NGOs from 13 Latin American nations to coordinate regional marine conservation strategies to stop whaling, create new marine sanctuaries and promote high-quality whalewatching. 
  • The significance of the Right Whale Program was highlighted by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at its 2010 annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco, when it stated that “as in previous years, the Committee recognises the value of the long-term photo-identification programme of right whales at Peninsula Valdes that had now lasted 40 years, particularly in being able to describe the significance of the recent die-off events and test certain causation hypotheses. It strongly recommends its continuation.”

ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION AND AWARENESS

In 2006, we signed a cooperation agreement with the Direction of Fauna and Flora of Chubut Province to develop the Education Program “Bringing the whales to your school”. This program has reached thousands of school children in three Argentine provinces.

ICB works to reduce the impact of massive tourism on the whales and their habitat by educating the general public, promoting popular awareness and cooperating with governmental agencies in conservation policies. We work to incorporate the economic, social, cultural and environmental values of cetaceans into management plans that include government agencies and NGO’s cooperating toward a High Quality Whalewatching industry, within an updated legal framework that is adapted to the needs of whale populations and the local people who benefit from them.

A carefully developed network of journalists and other contacts in the media, and the quality of the scientific information produced by its research team, have allowed ICB to use the media to increase the public’s awareness of issues confronting whales and, when needed, to enlist their support to pressure governmental officials on issues that require their attention and action. As an example, the last documentary about ICB’s research and education initiatives aired in the major TV news show in Argentina, and was seen by an estimated audience of 3 million people during two days. Our electronic newsletter with bi-weekly articles, our website and Facebook keep thousands of people informed about the whales’ conservation needs. Our education documentary in DVD format “The Southern Right Whales of Argentina” has reached a vast audience. It can be viewed online at http://www.whaletrackers.com/southern-right-whales-of-argentina.  

Our education and outreach achievements include, among others:

  • 6.000 students from three provinces in Argentina are using our Education Program “Bringing the Whales to your School”, declared of Educational Relevance by the Ministry of Education from Chubut Province and by the National House of Representatives.
  • 8 annual meetings with the local community in Puerto Pirámide, the hub of the whalewatch industry in Argentina.
  • 296 articles in newspapers in Argentina.
  • 74 articles in national and international magazines.
  • 87 interviews for TV and 99 interviews for radio shows.
  • We participated in the following documentaries (among others):
  • BBC: Ocean Giants (2011, United Kingdom)
  • El Efecto Granito de Arena (2008, Argentina)
  • Steffens Entdeckt Series (2008, Germany)
  • IMAX: Whales (1995, USA)
  • Discovery: In the Company of Whales (1992, USA)
  • 2.500 copies and 5 large-size displays of the southern right whale educational poster.
  • 80.000 copies of the Guide for Whalewatching distributed at Península Valdés.
  • 5.000 copies of the documentary “The Southern Right Whales of Argentina” (bilingual). Please see http://www.whaletrackers.com/southern-right-whales-of-argentina
  • 150.000 annual visits to our website www.icb.org.ar  
  • 7.000 subscribers to our e-newsletter Lista Franca, 195 articles sent.
  • 10.000 fans in Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/ICB.Argentina?v=wall&viewas=0

More information:
Spanish website www.icb.org.ar
Follow us on facebook www.facebook.com/ICB.Argentina
Twitter www.twitter.com/ICB_Argentina

The time left for the whales depends on us...prevent them from being history.