The term whale sanctuary broadly refers to a place of protection for whales; however, whale sanctuaries differ in specifics. Firstly, are the huge, ocean-wide areas where whales are protected by a ban on hunting them in the region; and secondly is the establishing of smaller areas for the purpose of reintegrating captured whales into the wild.
Where Whaling Is Banned
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the big player in this. Established in 1946, through the creation of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, it is the global body responsible for the management of whaling and conservation of whales. Created in response to the massive fall in whale numbers in they heyday of whaling, it consists of members from 89 countries worldwide, all of which are signed up to the Convention. The IWC has widened its remit to also address other issues threatening whales, such as ship strike, pollution and climate change.
Currently, there exist two sanctuaries established under the IWC. The first is the Indian Ocean sanctuary, established in 1979. It was proposed by the Seychelles, in order to protect whales when in their breeding grounds. The second, created in 1994, covers 50 million square kilometres of the southern waters around Antarctica. The establishment of any new sanctuary has to be voted on by the 89
member-countries, and every tenth year a new vote is made to review the status of the sanctuaries. A third sanctuary area has several times been proposed for the South Atlantic Ocean, but this has not yet gained the 75% majority vote required for approval.
The IWC’s work it not without controversy. Some countries, notably Japan, frequently vote against the ban on whaling, arguing for the right to hunt whale as a traditional food product. There is an ongoing bid by Japan to challenge the IWC, citing an increase to sustainable levels of some whales. This reflects the tensions between those who wish to protect as unique mammals of the sea, and those who view them as potential food supplies.
Sanctuaries for Captive Whales
Increasingly, opinion has mounted against the captivity of whales and other cetaceans for entertainment purposes. The detriment to the physical and mental health and wellbeing of these wonderful mammals has been well documented. Over recent years, different organisations have begun to work with owners of sea life attractions to return these captive mammals to the wild, in sanctuaries.
One such project, by the Sea Life Trust, is to create the world’s first open-sea whale sanctuary in the waters of Iceland. Comprising a sea pen of 32,000 square metres, it is being created for two currently captive beluga whales. Little White and Little Grey, as they are nicknamed, perform for visitors to the Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai. As the whales are only 12 years old, and belugas can live for over 40 years, it is hoped that they will be able live a good quality of life, provided the difficult task of transporting them on a 35-hour journey is successful. As Cathy Williamson, leader of the WDC End Captivity Programme says, to keep them in captivity would give them no quality of life whatsoever, so the risk is worth taking.