45 years Studying and Conserving the Southern Right Whales of Península Valdés, Argentina
The Instituto de Conservación 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 began to cooperate with the Ocean Alliance (OA) from Massachusetts to conduct the Right Whale Program in Argentina. Began in 1970 by Dr. Roger Payne, the Right Whale Program has become the longest continuous study in the world based on following the lives of known individual whales.
Its main objective is to monitor the status of the right whale population at Península Valdés, providing science based data to government authorities to make sound conservation decisions to protect right whales and their habitat, and working on environmental education initiatives and marine conservation strategies in Latin America.
In 2013, ICB won the prestigious BBVA Foundation’s Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America for “its extraordinary contribution over more than forty years to the understanding and conservation of the southern right whale.”
STUDYING THE SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
At present, the Right Whale Program catalog contains more than 3,000 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 5.1%; juveniles use breeding grounds to socialize with other juveniles and to potentially learn important behaviors; right whales can shift their distribution along the shorelines of Península Valdés over decades, and they feed in at least four feeding grounds in the South Atlantic, whose location they learn from their mothers.
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 Península Valdés have learned to eat the skin 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, affecting 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 this species. 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 600 whales that died since 2003, 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.
NETWORKING FOR MARINE CONSERVATION
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.
For the past decade, ICB has worked closely with the Ministry of Tourism of Chubut, the Direction of Fauna and Flora, and the Administration of Península Valdés Natural Protected Area, a UN World Heritage Site. Since 2008, ICB is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Administration of the Protected Area. We have cooperation agreements with the Library of the National Congress, with the Argentine Navy since 2001, with national universities and research centers, with other NGOs in Argentina and Latin America, and work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the national delegation to the International Whaling Commission. ICB is an Active Member of the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence (www.marpatagonico.org), where prestigious NGOs work jointly to minimize threats to the ocean environment such as pollution and overfishing, and to promote synergistic collaboration amongst organizations to achieve ecosystem integrity and effective management of the Patagonian Sea, in genuine partnership with the public and private sectors.
Whales migrate, so our conservation efforts must extend beyond national boundaries. We work at the international level where relevant decisions about the future of whales are taken. Since 2005, ICB participates actively at the annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Thanks to the joint 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. 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. ICB works with a network of over 70 NGOs in regional-scale whale conservation strategies in Latin America.
Whaling still occurs. Over 14,500 whales were killed by Japanese whalers for “scientific purposes” since 1985 and Japan has proposed a new "scientific" whaling program, planning to kill 333 whales each year. 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.
ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION AND AWARENESS
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 Whale watching 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.
Documentaries about ICB’s research and education initiatives air in major TV news show in Argentina, and are seen by an estimated audience of millions of people. 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.
ICB’s research and conservation work has been featured in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, radio and TV shows and internet portals. Since 1991, ICB researchers have participated in over 15 documentaries about whales and dolphins, working with major documentary producers including the BBC, National Geographic Society, IMAX and Discovery Channel, reaching an audience of millions of people around the world with a strong conservation message. Over 10,000 people receive ICB e-newsletter “Right News”, more than 40.000 people follow ICB FB Fan Page (facebook.com/ICB.Argentina) and its website (http://www.icb.org.ar) receives over 150,000 visitors each year.
The time left for the whales depends on us...prevent them from being history.
Adopt a Whale and support the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and the continuity of the Southern Right Whale Research and Conservation Program in Argentina.
I want to Adopt a Whale Now