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Monday, March 15, 1999 Published at 20:36 GMT


Sci/Tech

Whalers snare mother by killing calf

The dead calf tied up to the island ferry, with a red harpoon still in its back

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Reports from the Caribbean say a humpback whale calf was killed there in early March in order to entrap its mother, in defiance of international regulations.

The reports, published by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), quote eyewitnesses to the incident, which occurred just off Mustique, in the St Vincent and the Grenadines group of islands.

Some of the eyewitnesses were British holidaymakers. All insist on remaining anonymous.

They say that on 6 March they saw whalers on a boat under sail throwing harpoons at a humpback between four and five metres long. Humpback calves usually measure about 6 m when they are weaned.

Protection rule flouted

Humpback mothers will not abandon a calf in distress while it is still alive, and WDCS says the dying cries of the calf drew in the mother whale.


[ image: The mother whale (top left) is flensed on Petit Nevis]
The mother whale (top left) is flensed on Petit Nevis
She in her turn was harpooned, and bled to death.

The rules of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) forbid the killing of suckling calves or of females accompanied by a calf.

There is at the moment a moratorium on all commercial whaling. But the IWC does allow small-scale whaling (subject to rules of this sort) where communities depend on it for food and have traditionally practised it.

Under this regulation, St Vincent - an IWC member since 1981 - is allowed to catch two humpbacks a year. But WDCS says that is based on an understanding that the whaling will end when the last remaining whaler, now aged 75, retires.

It says a young relative of the whaler killed a humpback mother and calf last year, using a new whaling boat. And it says vessels used in this year's hunt included a speedboat and the local ferry.

Japanese discussions

Some of the witnesses say one of the whalers told them a dead whale had a high monetary value. But the whaling the IWC allows is meant only to feed local people, with none of the meat going for sale.


[ image: Japan kills several hundred whales a year]
Japan kills several hundred whales a year
WDCS says that St Vincent has received millions of dollars from Japan in the last decade.

It says the money was paid to secure St Vincent's support for Japan in the IWC, where Tokyo is arguing for a resumption of commercial whaling.

WDCS says officials from Japan and several West Indian islands have been discussing a commercial whaling programme in the Caribbean.

It believes any further kills like that in Mustique could damage the Caribbean tourist trade.

Complex songs

The heyday of whaling is thought to have killed more than 100,000 humpbacks, and the world population is now put at no more than 15,000.

Male humpbacks sing the longest and most complex songs of any animal.

They have developed novel feeding techniques, sometimes stunning their prey (shrimp-like krill or fish) with a slap of their flippers or tail flukes.

They also swim in a spiral beneath a shoal, expelling air from their blowholes to form a net of bubbles up to 45 m across.

This surrounds the shoal, allowing the whale to swim up through it and swallow the fish.



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