Posted on: August 31, 2010

Ecuador Whale Project Offers Hope to People of Puerto Lopez

After a busy month at the International Whaling Commission's Annual Meeting in Morocco, Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Research Director, Dr. Cristina Castro, is now focused on Pacific Whale Foundation's 2010 Ecuador Humpback Whale Research Project.

Ecuador's whales are part of a population of Pacific humpback whales that reside in the southern hemisphere. These whales -- called ballenas jorobadas in Spanish -- spend the months of June through September in the warm, tropical waters off Ecuador's west coast, mating, giving birth and caring for their calves. Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Research Project takes place during that time.

This population of Pacific humpback whales feeds near Antarctica, during the months of October through May, which are the summer months of the southern hemisphere.

Pacific Whale Foundation has supported whale research in Ecuador for nine years, providing funding and scientific expertise to support Dr. Castro and her team. "It's a very critical area in terms of humpback whale conservation," points out Greg Kaufman, Pacific Whale Foundation's Founder and Chief Scientist. "The whales that are breeding off the coast of Ecuador are the whales that are being targeted by Japan's whaling ships in the Southern Ocean during the feeding season."

Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Research Team, led by Dr. Castro, is gathering photo-identification data on individual whales, to add to the catalog of more than 1,300 humpback whales that have been identified by the research team. The research team is also gathering data on bycatch of marine mammals in fishermen's nets and marine mammal strandings.

Dr. Castro has also brought together researchers working off the west coast of Latin and Central America and now curates a photo-identification catalog (funded by Pacific Whale Foundation) with whale fluke identifications from Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Peru, Chile, the Straits of Magellan (a new feeding area in Chile) and the Antarctic Peninsula. A number of ground breaking new publications have come from this collaboration, and have yielded new insight with regard to population size, migratory pathways, rates of interchange, and reproductive dynamics.

Dr. Castro was also instrumental in helping form the Latin American Humpback Whale Research Group in 2007, a cooperative of researchers from all countries in Latin America.

Whales have become extremely important to the people of Puerto Lopez, the town where Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Project is based. Until recently, Puerto Lopez was just a sleepy little fishing village nestled on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. The only taxi was a three-wheeled bicycle. Poverty was rampant. The primary livelihood for the residents was fishing and shark finning. Years of overfishing had resulted in many fishermen being unable to earn the most meager of salaries.

But the presence of the whales attracted visitors to Puerto Lopez. As Dr. Castro says, “whales changed the life and the economy of the Ecuadorian coast.”

The humpback whales are found primarily in the waters of Machalila National Park, located offshore from Puerto Lopez. As visitors intent on seeing whales began arriving in Puerto Lopez, fishermen hurried to convert their boats into whalewatch vessels to capitalize on this exciting new source of revenue. Unfortunately, this rush into whalewatching happened quickly, without guidelines or regulations to protect the whales.

Dr. Castro and the Pacific Whale Foundation team stepped in, to offer training programs for captains and naturalists of whalewatch boats. She also held workshops for teachers, government agencies, journalists and other stakeholders interested in protecting this remarkable living resource, the humpback whales of Ecuador.

In 2007, Dr. Castro helped to convince Ecuador’s government to enact a ban on whaling in its nearshore seas. Also in 2007, she helped to bring together all of the nations of Central and South America, to sign a pledge against commercial whaling, which was then presented to the International Whaling Commission.

Dr. Castro's whale research in Ecuador earned her a seat on the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, a group that helps to advise the political arm of the IWC. Dr. Castro was also named to Ecuador's voting delegation and attended the recent IWC meeting in Morocco. The voting delegations from Ecuador and other Latin American countries were instrumental in forming a block against the controversial proposal that would have allowed Japan, Iceland and Norway to legitimately hunt humpback whales.

Dr. Castro and her team are also committed to educating children about the whales and the value of marine conservation. During 2008, she conducted educational programs about whales for 948 students, at 21 different schools in 10 different communities, employing puppets, humor and free copies of the book “Elena la Ballena” (which she wrote, and is published by Pacifiic Whale Foundation – one of four books Pacific Whale Foundation has published in Ecuador) to give away free to the kids. In schools where 50 students share a single classroom and single teacher, these books are especially appreciated.

"Whales are an important part of the future of Puerto Lopez and all the people of Ecuador," says Greg Kaufman. "Pacific Whale Foundation is proud to be working here, making a difference for people and the whales."

Donations are needed to support Pacific Whale Foundation's Ecuador Project. To donate, please call 808-249-8811 ext. 1 or send your donation to Pacific Whale Foundation Ecuador Project, 300 Maalaea Road, Suite 211, Wailuku, HI 96790.