Brazil Creates Southern Right Whale Sanctuary

IMBITUBA, Santa Catarina, Brazil, September 25, 2000 (ENS) - A new sanctuary for the endangered Southern Right whale has been approved by the Brazilian government for a 130 kilometer (80 mile) stretch of ocean off the country's southern coast.

Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso has signed a decree creating the protected area between the Island of Florianópolis and the vast beaches south of the Santa Marta Cape, where right whales gather from June to December to give birth and nurse their young. The sanctuary will encompass 156,000 hectares (600 square miles).


The new whale sanctuary located near Imbituba (Photos courtesy Brazilian Right Whale Project)
Here, a nursery area of these endangered whales thrives in the shadow of the ruins of former whaling stations, says Jose Truda Palazzo Jr. of the Brazilian Right Whale Project who spearheaded the sanctuary initiative. These whaling ports operated for more than 300 years until the last one in Imbituba was closed down in 1973 for lack of whales.

This Imbituba facility is about to be rebuilt and turned into a whale conservation museum by the Brazilian Right Whale Project.

Brazil's Minister of the Environment José Sarney Filho says that the creation of the protected area is a step towards consolidating the Brazilian policy of sustainable non-lethal use of whales by developing countries.

This is part of a legal doctrine currently being spearheaded by Brazil at the International Whaling Commission, to strengthen the sovereign, legitimate rights of developing countries to use whales non-lethally and to have these rights protected by the Commission against the increasing threat of the resumption of commercial whaling by Japanese fleets.

The minister estimates the present number of Southern Right whales at 7,000 out of an estimated original number of at least 100,000, an estimate with which Palazzo agrees.

President of the International Wildlife Coalition's Brazilian chapter, Palazzo has been field coordinator of the Brazilian Right Whale Project since it began in 1981. He serves as a member of the Federal Aquatic Mammals Group of IBAMA, the National Environmental Authority of Brazil.

Author of the "Guide to the Marine Mammals of Brazil," the first such publication in the country, Palazzo is the only Brazilian non-governmental observer accredited to the meetings of the International Whaling Comission.


Southern Right whale mother and calf off the coast of Santa Catarina, Brazil
He says the sanctuary really took off in 1998, at a special workshop held in Cape Town, South Africa by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. The committee reviewed data presented by the International Wildlife Coalition's Brazil office and unanimously recommended "the establishment of new protected areas in the breeding grounds" of the species, "the south central coast of Santa Catarina, Brazil."

After that meeting, Palazzo and his team prepared a technical proposal for the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment for establishment of the sanctuary. They presented it to Minister Sarney in March 1999, recommending the government set up an Environmental Protection Area under Brazilian federal law.

Although fully supported by Minister Sarney and a large number of local leaders and community sectors of Santa Catarina, fierce opposition was generated by the ministries of transportation and agriculture, Palazzo told ENS.

The Ministry of Transportation oversees the operation of harbors and thought the sanctuary could harm the harbors of Imbituba and Laguna. The Ministry of Agriculture includes the Secretariat of Fisheries which is known to act as a powerful lobbyist for industrial fishing interests and opposed any new regulations for fishing in the whales´ seasonal breeding grounds.

"It took a long time and the gathering of important politicians and government authorities, including the Governor of Santa Catarina who backed the proposal fully, to overcome these pockets of opposition," said Palazzo. But finally the Ministry of Environment won the fight and President Cardoso signed the Federal Decree establishing the Right Whale Environmental Protection Area on September 14.

An emerging whale watching industry will benefit greatly from creation of the sanctuary as it demands high environmental and educational standards of the operation, Palazzo says.


From May to November right whales approach to within 60 feet of the shore. Ibiraquera Beach, 1995. (Photo (c) Marcelo Ruschel courtesy Brazilian Right Whale Project)
One of the world´s leading specialists in the whale watching business, Dr. Carole Carlson, senior marine biologist at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), came to Brazil for the designation of the new sanctuary to participate in the commemoration of the 18th anniversary of the Brazilian Right Whale Project and to discuss whale watching in the new sanctuary with federal, regional and local authorities.

The Brazilian sanctuary becomes part of a vital network of protected breeding grounds of right whales in the South Atlantic, joining Peninsula Valdés in Argentina and the recently declared marine park off Hermanus, South Africa.

Now, says Palazzo, environmentalists from Uruguay are working with their Brazilian and Argentinian colleagues to have their country join the system by establishing a protected area near the cape of La Paloma.

Besides right whales, the sanctuary will protect resident groups of bottlenose dolphins known to help artisanal fishermen to gather mullet near the shores of the township of Laguna. It will protect important colonies of seabirds in coastal islands and a number of granite promontories still covered with coastal scrub which harbors rare and rapidly vanishing species.

Though no human activities are to be forbidden beforehand, IBAMA will prepare a management plan which will define zoning and specific restrictions as necessary to ensure sustainability over time and the protection of the surviving right whales.

With help of international conservation institutions such as the California based Barbara Delano Foundation and IFAW, the Wildlife Coalition has been working since last year to train enforcement personnel in understanding and applying whale protection regulations.

The State Military Police of Santa Catarina, for which the Palazzo's team has already conducted two training seminars, will be the main support for actual enforcement of the sanctuary rules.