Zero science in Chinese request to catch whales

07 October 2016 | Environment

The fisheries ministry has finalised a recommendation in response to a request from dubious Chinese companies to capture endangered marine wildlife off Namibia’s coast for export to Chinese zoos.

The application has attracted heavy criticism locally and globally, after much of the proposal’s content was found to have a complete lack of scientific accuracy as well as outright false claims.

The proposed harvest of critically endangered species including dolphins and African penguins could wipe out Namibia’s populations of these animals, since the number of animals requested for annual harvest is higher than the number in existence.

Dolphin researchers said fewer than 100 common bottlenose dolphins inhabit Namibian waters, but the Chinese put in a request to capture 100 a year.

“This just demonstrates the complete lack of sound scientific data used in devising this proposal,” a dolphin researcher explained yesterday.

Another said the proposal was “unviable and unsustainable”, particularly as regards critically endangered species such as whales, dolphins and African penguins.

The final decision will be made by the minister of fisheries and marine resources, Bernhard Esau, when he returns to the country in two weeks, the ministry’s permanent secretary, Dr Moses Maurihungirire, said yesterday.

The PS said the ministry had taken note of the widespread alarm expressed locally and globally and emphasised that it would not make a decision that would harm Namibia.

“We have been flooded with emails,” he admitted.

He said he welcomed the input from the public because “the resources belong to the public. Fortunately they have an able Ministry of Fisheries which has a holistic view of our resources.”

He said the applicants, Welwitschia Aquatic and Wildlife Scientific Research Pty Ltd, and Beijing Ruier Animal Breeding & Promoting Co., have not been informed of the decision yet.

Yesterday, Maurihungirire dismissed one of the Chinese claims in the proposal, which stated that the live capture of marine animals would “help Namibia improve its overview of the marine environment”.

“The main purpose of this project is to promote scientific research which will assist Namibia to gather detailed information on its marine mammals and their consumption impact … this will also serve educational purposes.”

The PS noted that Namibia has a “systematic approach to resources” and has conducted countless assessments in order to determine the impact of various marine species on each other.

“As a matter of fact … we do a lot of assessments in order to see what the effect is on each other (marine species). We don’t say our ecosystem is perfect … but we haven’t seen any species impacting negatively on one another. They have equilibrium,” he said.

A letter submitted to the ministry by the Namibian Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS) dismissed the applicants’ statements that dolphins, penguins and whales are devastating local fish stocks.

“The removal of the proposed numbers of the listed species will not improve Namibia’s fish stocks. Instead the already tenuous status of threatened and uncommon species is likely to deteriorate,” it said.

Moreover, many of the species in question are protected under national and international laws and conventions.

“The species listed in the proposal are all listed as protected species by the Namibia Marine Resources Act … all species are listed on CITES Appendix II,” NEWS stated.

Background information on the two companies could not be verified and a number of concerned individuals have theorised that the companies were created specifically to head this request.

An online petition urging the ministry to deny the request has attracted close to 6 000 signatures to date.

Moreover, on Sunday environmental activists will attempt to deliver the signed petition to the captain of the ‘killer boat’, the vessel Ryazanovka, which reportedly has been docked in the Walvis Bay harbour since May.

Modified to enable it to carry large marine species, including whales, to Chinese and other markets, the vessel’s presence at the coast has put several groups on red alert, sparking fears that even if the ministry denies the request, the ship’s operators could continue to illegally capture animals.

Maurihungirire yesterday said the ministry had instructed fisheries inspectors to keep a close eye on the vessel.

“We cannot prevent vessels from entering our waters, but we can prevent them from doing illegal activities,” he said.

Nevertheless, according to a number of activists, the vessel is equipped with whale trapping gear.

Many of the species on the Chinese capture list are shared resources, including the whales, which occasionally pass through Namibian coastal waters in transit along the coast of Africa.

“You can’t decide on something without discussing it with your neighbours. The sea is an open system, they don’t belong to us,” a Namibian scientist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said yesterday.

He added that dolphins, penguins and whales, among other marine wildlife, have become integral to the country’s booming tourism industry at the coast “and we don’t want to send them off to a zoo”.

Worldwide, the practice of capturing wild animals for captivity in zoos is viewed as illegal and in contravention of international conventions.

JANA-MARI SMITH