Interview with Erich Hoyt on his new book

Reading the new 2nd edition of Erich Hoyt’s MPAs for Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises gave me a lot to think about. What a fascinating topic and the book is… I’m not sure I have words. It is an impressive volume packed with information on cetacean species, highly detailed information on their habitat and migratory patterns, and lots of background on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

1. MPAs are a complex, but critical strategy to protect whales, dolphins, porpoises and other marine species. What are some of the biggest constraints to the success of MPAs and what are some steps to help overcome them?

EH: One constraint is getting them implemented. All MPAs start out on paper. It can be in the interests of government, industry or certain stakeholders in keeping them only on paper. There is inertia of course, too. Many areas stay as paper MPAs for years. I always say that all MPAs start out on paper but it is up to the stakeholders — the local communities, researchers, government ministries, conservation groups and those who care — to work separately and jointly to make them real MPAs that function to help protect marine wildlife and ecosystems. It is also important to realize that once effective protection is put in place, it is necessary to monitor and review the situation from time to time and make changes as needed to keep the MPA functioning and, indeed, improving.

For whales and dolphins and other highly mobile marine animals, there are particular challenges to overcome, but we can solve some of these issues by, for example, creating networks that protect the animals over various portions of their range, setting up corridors in important migratory areas, having seasonal and sometimes moveable zones of protection that can accommodate changes in the distribution. There are lots of good ideas around but we are only starting now to implement them. But we need to try and test these ideas to see how well they work and how they can be refined.

2. The first chapter is titled “From Whale Sanctuaries to Marine Protected Areas” – what’s the difference?

EH: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has devised a formal definition for ‘protected area’ that is in common use: a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.

IUCN defines a marine protected area as: “Any area of intertidal or sub-tidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment,” (Kelleher, 1999). This definition is being refined by IUCN but, in general, a marine protected area is simply a protected area located anywhere from coastal waters to out to sea, usually defined by GPS coordinates. So the phrase “marine protected area” is a generic term indicating any area of the sea protected by formal or informal means.

When it comes to marine protected areas, there are a lot of confusing terms. I could have written a whole book trying to sort out the shades of meaning, as well as the profound differences in the uses of the same or similar terms from country to country, region to region, even within a country. For example, “sanctuary” means a highly protected area in Australia and New Zealand while the US has adopted the term for its multiple use “national marine sanctuaries” where for the most part fishing is allowed. Then there is the concept of large whale and dolphin sanctuaries covering the national waters of a country: these are mainly “no hunting” areas created by some 28 countries where there already are laws against no hunting. If we stood back and examined what they do, we would say in most cases absolutely nothing. But, on the positive side, they are statements of good intention. I think we should try to build on these positive intentions to try to create real habitat protection in these areas perhaps through establishing special zones of protection.

The IUCN has tried to address the confusion about the names by devising a rating system for all MPAs ranging from high protection reserved for science only or kept as wilderness (Category I) to multiple use areas that may even allow fishing and some industrial uses (Category VI). In between are marine national parks and monuments which allow tourism and other light uses but not extraction. The primary purpose of all MPAs, regardless of the category, is conservation of the biological, geological and/or cultural features. Any other uses are meant to be conducted without fundamentally disturbing the ecosystems that support the future sustainability of the area.

3. For years, Japan, Norway, and Iceland have gotten away with continued whaling, despite the moratorium imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). What will it take to get them to stop taking whales for “scientific” purposes and why do they refuse to recognize the harm being done by taking endangered species?

EH: In 1986, there was widespread celebration as a worldwide moratorium on hunting whales commercially finally went into effect. More than ¾ of the country members of the International Whaling Commission, supported by many scientists, conservation groups, governments and the public, voiced their strong view that the era of killing whales was over. That moratorium is still in effect today. However, a few countries have defied the spirit of the moratorium, by continuing to hunt whales through legal loopholes in the IWC regulations, and in some cases increasing the pressure on dolphin and other species formerly considered non- or less commercial. There is a recognition, even among many Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic people, that the so-called “scientific whaling” is primarily a device to keep whaling alive. The scientific results have been minimal and the publications marginal; most of the work can be accomplished through non-lethal methods and with better results. The meat from the scientific whaling is sold in commercial markets largely in Japan.

However, there are stockpiles of meat in Japan, Iceland and Norway as the general public even in these countries that go whaling have a severely declining interest in eating whales. Most of the industrial products have cheaper or more reliable substitutes today. So the market is declining and Japan has had to subsidize whaling for some years.

What we are seeing today is not even the last hurrah of what was once a huge industry. It is post-last hurrah. The last hurrah was in the Antarctic in the 1960s. Whaling hangs on, but just. The reason it hangs on at all is because there are individuals in all three countries who have a vested interest in seeing it continue. These include a whaler in Iceland who wants to use the ships and harpoons he already has. There is also the Japan Fisheries Agency in Tokyo whose whaling division negotiates its budget every year, some of which goes to keeping whaling alive. In Norway, there are existing minke whale ships that want to be able to hunt. But all of the above are confronting what is a small and declining market for whale meat and whale products. I believe that market forces will eventually sink the whaling industry but for now a few of those old iron ships are still plying the same old seas firing exploding harpoons into the bodies of whales, some of them endangered species. Most of the whales killed today are minke whales and they are not endangered, although there are minke populations under fire that are of concern, but Japan and Iceland have also the last few years targeted fin whales, the 2nd largest animal that ever lived after the blue whale. Fin whales are on the IUCN Red List, listed as “Endangered” due to the heavy whaling of this species through most of the past century. They have not yet recovered. Given the history of this industry and the specifics of the endangered fin whale, it is absolutely unthinkable that whalers in the early 21st century would be targeting and killing fin whales.

My book was written with the premise that for the most part we have done what we can to stop hunting but now we have to ask how do we truly “save the whales”. The answer is that we have to save their habitat, their homes in the sea. Without saving habitat, it means very little to have stopped hunting.

4. How are MPAs protected from illegal fishing/whaling? How can stakeholders partner to ensure that the limits imposed in MPAs are enforced?

EH: MPAs are mainly close to shore and illegal fishing and whaling are less of a problem because of the proximity of law enforcement. Offshore and outside the exclusive economic zones of countries, outside 200 nm, it’s a different story. In terms of fishing it is a wild west show. Illegal whaling is not such a problem anymore mainly because there is no real market for the meat.

Stakeholders are the strongest protection that whales and the sea have. An example is the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve in Mexico where some years ago the Mitsubishi Company wanted to build salt plants in the reserve beside the gray whale mating and calving lagoons. It seemed like a done deal until the “Group of 100″ Mexican artists, writers, citizens and their international friends, many of whom had gone whale watching in the reserve, as well as the local families and artisanal fishermen and boat operators who lived around the lagoons and made their livelihood from the healthy ecosystem, organized a massive worldwide campaign. In the end Mitsubishi was forbidden to expand their activities, a victory for the people, the stakeholders, and for the gray whale.

5. How is the impact of MPAs measured? Are cetacean census studies routinely conducted?

EH: MPAs and whale research are only a few decades old, and most of them have been created in the past decade. Therefore, there hasn’t been much time for evaluation but management plans are starting to monitor and re-evaluate the success of MPAs on a 5-10 year basis. There are various ways to monitor the health of ecosystems. It is expensive to do comprehensive abundance and distribution surveys of whales and dolphins but we need to do them every 5-10 years, if possible. The problem with most cetacean studies is that they focus only on very limited coastal areas and we have much less data offshore, so it is difficult to know how well we are doing in our protection efforts on a larger scale.

6. Shows like “Whale Wars” present whale conservation as entertainment. Do you feel that Sea Shepherd is helping to raise awareness in a positive way?

EH: “Whale Wars” gets people on all sides talking about the subject. That’s good, regardless of whether you are a whaler, an activist anti-whaler, or someone who works in other ways to effect change. If we don’t bring these things out into the open and think about them and talk about them, then they essentially happen behind closed doors and everyone just listens to their iPod or keeps texting while Rome burns. Of course, the bigger issues are what is happening and what is going to happen in the next decades with the all-out industrialization of the sea. We can’t drive our cars out to see the mess that is already starting to happen, but don’t be fooled: the ocean is the key part of our support system on Earth and if we don’t pay attention, our children will never forgive us.

7. Describe some of the most memorable moments you’ve had during cetacean encounters.

EH: I like the moments when you get to be in the presence of a family of whales or dolphins that you’ve been studying and come to know and you are with them for hours or even days and start to feel like a member of their community. This requires a delicate balance between being close enough to observe them yet far enough away so as not to disturb them or affect their natural behavior. For watching whales, I prefer when I am on land, but it’s possible on a boat with the best skippers who believe in “slow whale watching” and who have the gift of how to behave around whales so as not to disturb them.

Last summer I spent three days on a slow whale watching boat captained by my friends Jim and Mary Borrowman off northern Vancouver Island. I had long promised to take my wife and four children on this trip and this was the first time they had visited British Columbia and had the chance to meet orcas. For most of three days we watched the orcas gorging themselves on a record sockeye salmon run. The orcas were truly fat and happy — lying on the surface, resting for hours at a time. It was special for me because I renewed my acquaintance with some of the first whales I had ever studied in 1973. It was not just the same species but the same family called Stubbs’ pod (from my book Orca: The Whale Called Killer and also mentioned in many articles I wrote for National Geographic and other publications). One favorite female I met in 1973 was called Tsitika. She had just had a calf then and now she was a grandmother with an estimated age of 62 years. That was memorable to see her again. In my book I had written that orcas are so long-lived that someday I will be able to return and show my children these same whales and the offspring of these whales. There I was doing it.

One of the turning points in my work with whales years ago, long before there was any discussion about trying to protect whales in protected areas, was when I found that pods of orcas I was studying were coming back to the same areas day after day from late spring to early autumn and year after year. This is called ‘site fidelity’. Without this, it would be much more difficult to think about protecting specific ocean areas for whales and dolphins. Site fidelity is what creates the concept of “Homes in the Sea for Whales and Dolphins” which is a concept I devised and am hoping to work on as part of a campaign for habitat protection through WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

8. The book provides highly detailed descriptions of the global habitat of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Would you recommend it as a tool for whale watchers and tourists to learn more about where they can observe cetaceans in the wild?

EH: Yes my book can tell you where the 86 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises live around the world —- in every country, every ocean and sea and down to the fine detail of what can be seen in any of the 740 proposed and existing marine protected areas around the world.

These marine protected areas are similar to what the great national parks were in the early 1900s. Pioneer ecotourists are starting to discover them; many more people will follow. Of course, people have been going to a handful of these areas increasingly over the past couple decades, largely on whale watching and diving tours: the Great Barrier Reef and the US National Marine Sanctuaries in California, Hawaii and Stellwagen Bank off Massachusetts, being the most notable examples. But apart from these MPAs, tourism hasn’t really started on the marine side.

My book is starting to be used by pioneer ecotourists and whale watchers to find some of the great new marine sanctuaries and other protected areas where whales, dolphins and other marine life can be seen. In fact, I have been astonished by the remote and distant countries where the book turns up. I have been lecturing in more than 50 countries now and I expect when I go to places such as Suriname, that I am bringing my book for the first time, but I have been surprised quite a few times to find it already there and being used along with the world map posters we made showing all the MPAs on one huge map.

When you produce a book, you have no idea all the ways it will be used. My book explores the biological, ecological, legal, political and cultural aspects of marine habitat protection. I hope that this work will help in the creation of better protected areas for all marine animals, and that our oceans will achieve a high standard of management and protection and — that it will continue to sustain all of us into the distant future.

[Interview © Erich Hoyt and MarineBio.org 2011]

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