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Whale-watching a boon for California -- and for whales?

June 24, 2009 |  1:59 pm

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Is whale-watching a recreational activity or a form of protest against commercial whaling? Environmentalists say it can be both.

Whale-watching generates $82 million a year in California alone, according to a new report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The profitability of whale-watching provides ammo in the philosophical battle against whale hunting countries like Japan, said Patrick Ramage, IFAW Whale Program Director.

"We should be shooting whales with cameras, not harpoons," Ramage said. "Clearly, living whales in their environment are worth a lot more to us than they are dead.

In California, more than 1.3 million people went on whale- or dolphin-watching expeditions in 2008, according to the report. On the sale of tickets for whale-watching boats alone, California generates more than $14 million a year. The number rises to $82 million when IFAW adds in expenses like hotel stays and food. Whale-watching expeditions now sally forth from shores in 119 countries worldwide, employing 13,500 people, Ramage said.

Only Japan, Iceland, and Norway still permit whale hunting. Their practices are currently under discussion at the International Whaling Commission meeting, which ends Friday in Portugal. More than 80 countries are meeting to determine the future of the commission, which was founded to promote commercial whaling in 1946. Whale advocates will present the IFAW study to the commission and make a case for watching whales over killing them.

Whales today face indirect threats from military sonar, which can cause the animals to panic and bolt to the surface, and from entanglement in fishing gear. Whale-watching expeditions generally don't harm the whales, Ramage said, unless operators are careless and collide with the whales with their boats.

A gray whale hung around the Marina del Rey area for about three weeks, charming locals, before resuming his journey to Alaskan waters Tuesday.

--Amy Littlefield

Photo: A blue whale swims through Southern California waters. Credit: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times

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