Valparaiso, Oct. 16 – Environmentalists and politicians met Tuesday in Valparaiso to discuss the creation of the world’s largest whale sanctuary. Representatives from 15 non-governmental organizations across Latin America presented the project to Chile’s Senate Environmental Commission with the hopes of receiving governmental approval before the upcoming 60th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Santiago on the 27th and 28th of June 2008.

“The goal of these meetings is to strengthen the determination of Latin America’s civic organizations to seek out solutions to the environmental threats whales face,” said Diego Taboada, director of the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina, one of the sponsors of the event.

The Commission seemed supportive of the project but asked representatives to propose concrete steps for Congress to take to move forward with the plan.

Beatriz Bugeda, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Latin America, replied that the project could become law through Presidential decree, bypassing Congress, as was done in Mexico when they designated their national waters a whale sanctuary in 2002.

Also present at the meeting was a representative of the Chilean small fisheries association who described local fishers as “desperately concerned” about the overall health of Chilean fisheries and supportive of any efforts to protect the whales.

“We totally agree with this ban,” he said, “there is no disagreement about this among small fishermen. We need a national commission to study our oceans because we are losing resources we don’t even know we have.”

Another sponsor, the Whale Conservation Center (CCC in Spanish), also pointed out some tangible economic benefits to creating a whale sanctuary in Chile. According to them, whale-watching as an industry has grown sharply over the past decades and currently earns 500 communities around the world US$ 1.2 billion a year. Because 50 percent of the world’s whale species can be found in Chilean waters at some time of the year, the establishment of a sanctuary here could help position Chile as a top destination for whale-watching in the years to come.

Increasing tourism is a strategic goal for Chile and brought in US$1.5 billion in 2005. The CCC predicts that increased visits from whale-watchers could help stimulate tourism growth, especially in outlying regions receiving tourists.

However, Bugeda warned that the creation of the new sanctuary in Chile would not be enough unless there was a concerted effort by other nations to adopt similar measures to protect whales during their long migrations across the world’s oceans. The group is trying to create a whale corridor throughout the Americas and hopes that Chile will set an example for other nations to follow.

Pressure is now on Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet to consider the issue before the IWC meeting in 2008.

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