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.
Our research achievements include, among others:
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:
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:
The time left for the whales depends on us...prevent them from being history.