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Brazil approves first whale sanctuary
Bowing to pressure from environmentalists, Brazil's president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has approved a pact to create the country's first whale sanctuary.
Cardoso signed a decree that will establish an official Environmental Protection Area in the southern state of Santa Catarina.
The breakthrough follows an 18-month battle by members of Brazil's Southern Right Whale Project, who fought on in the face of strong objections from the local fishing industry.
"It's taken a year and a half, but we finally got there," said project co-ordinator José Truda Palazzo Jr. "Recognition of this region will help our work enormously."
The project, a non-governmental organization set up almost two decades ago to preserve the southern right whale, hopes official recognition of this important nursery site will attract fresh funding and expertise from international whale conservation groups.
Once abundant in Brazilian waters, whales began to be slaughtered in the 17th century when Portugal granted the first commercial hunting licenses.
By the end of the 18th century, so many had been killed that whaling stations were in decline. Most shut down by the early 20th century, and the southern right whale all but disappeared from the Brazilian coast.
As the main target of the whaling industry, the right whale (slow-moving and found close to the shore, thus the "right" whale to pursue) was hunted to the brink of extinction.
Although southern right whales became an internationally protected species in 1935, hunting continued in Brazil until as late as 1973, when the last whaling station in the south of the country also in Santa Catarina state closed.
The species was "rediscovered" in Brazilian waters in the early '80s, prompting researchers to establish the Southern Right Whale Project. Today, the southern right whale, which can grow up to 15 meters in length, is the second-most threatened on the planet, with only 7,000 remaining in the Earth's oceans.
Southern right whales (Eubalaena Australis) are now common off the coast of Santa Catarina from May to December. The sheltered waters are used as a birthing and nursery site, and calves and adult animals can be seen as close as 30 meters from shore.
The growing interest in whale conservation in Brazil is sparking a rush of whale-watching tourism in the country. The activity is estimated to be worth $1 billion a year in 63 countries worldwide an argument that proved crucial in winning the approval of locals for the new protected area.
"We thought the (area) was going to be created last year, but there were a lot of complaints from the fishing community who believed it would threaten their livelihood," said José.
"The proposal was backed by the International Whaling Commission in 1998, and presented to the government at the beginning of last year. It had to be submitted for studies and restudies, and each one was a fresh setback for us. They finally reached the conclusion we've known all along that the (protected area) can only be beneficial for our region."
As well as monitoring local southern right whale populations, the project is heavily involved in educating the local community, promoting whale-watching tourism and laying down guidelines for tourism operators.
José said locals are already beginning to see the benefits of this type of eco-tourism, with several hotels preparing beachfront rooms to offer visitors front-row views.
"Whale watching tourism will be very important for the preservation of the whales," he added, "and the new (decree) gives us full control over how it develops."
Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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