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  Jakarta Post 12 Jun 07
Sawu sea haven for whales and dolphins
A. Junaidi, The Jakarta Post, Lembata island, East Nusa Tenggara

While cetaceans such as whales and dolphins are widely hunted in some parts of the world, they could soon find the deep Sawu Sea in East Nusa Tenggara province a safe haven.

Representatives from the provincial administration, three surrounding regencies, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia, and the Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently signed an agreement to protect sea biodiversity, especially marine mammals.

"The province and regencies are committed to protecting the sea and its biodiversity and will develop sustainable marine tourism," East Nusa Tenggara Deputy Governor Frans Lebu Raya said during the signing ceremony.

Frans believes that the establishment of the Sawu Sea as a marine conservation area will increase the welfare of local fishermen. Research conducted by WWF and TNC in 2001 and 2002 suggests that seas in the regencies of Alor, Lembata and East Flores are important habitats for 11 whale species, including the endangered blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and sperm whale (Physeter macrochepalus). Whales pass through the sea, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans, during their migration thanks to its one-kilometer depth.

The Sawu Sea is known among global environmentalists as part of a coral triangle -- mainly spanning from west to east and south to north of Indonesia and part of the Philippines -- which is also recognized as one of the richest marine biodiversity areas in the world.

Lembata island is famous for its traditional whalers. Using sailing wooden boats and bamboo spears, they can catch dozens of whales and dolphins every year.

Although the number of local whalers is small compared to their counterparts in Japan, Norway and Iceland, who together kill some 2,000 whales a year with their sophisticated ships and harpoons, they still raise concerns among environmentalists.

Nevertheless. the agreement to protect the Sawu Sea does not in any way aim to ban local fishermen from whaling, which has been their main way of life for hundreds of years.

"No, we do not ban them from whaling. But we want to educate them to conserve the whales for the welfare of the fisherman themselves, their children and their grandchildren in the long term," WWF marine program leader Wawan Ridwan told reporters after the signing ceremony in Lewoleba, Lembata island.

Hopefully, Wawan said, the whalers could only catch mature and unproductive whales and avoid endangered species, such as blue whales and sperm whales.

Whales take between six to 13 years to reach maturity. Their gestation period lasts for between nine and 16 months and they usually give birth to one single calf which needs to be weaned for between eight months to two years. Unproductive whales, on the other hand, are usually those more than 10 meters in sizes.

The 70-nation International Whaling Commission (IWC) has actually agreed on a moratorium on commercial whaling, but commercial whaling still persists.

Indonesia is not a member of that commission and is thus not obliged to comply with the policy.

Some countries argue that their whaling is for scientific research, which is allowed by IWC, but in practice they sell whale meat in restaurants. Besides meat, the marine mammals provide oil for lamps, candles, soaps and perfumes.

The latest IWC scientific survey estimates that there are some 760,000 whales in Antarctic, 149,000 in North Atlantic and 25,000 in the North Pacific. Some species of whales have decreased in number drastically because of overfishing.

Many whales have also been stranded on beaches and died because of heavy pollutants and sonar waves from submarines, which disturb their "navigating sense". Of the 27 species of whales in the world, 11 species are seen in Indonesia's marine area.

Wawan said the conservation program in the Sawu Sea should also improve the welfare of local whalers.

To increase the fishermen's income, the WWF plans to train locals on other marine-related jobs, such as how to cultivate sea weed and market the product. "It will take time to educate locals on the importance of the conservation program for them," Wawan said.

Along with the establishment of the Sawu marine conservation area, WWF Indonesia launched the Phinisi ship as a facility in educating whalers, especially local students, on the importance of the conservation program.

The wooden ship, which is 22.5 meters in length and 5.5 meters wide, can accommodate 35 training participants. The construction of the ship, which is also equipped with audio visual devices on environmental education, cost around Rp 600 million.

Besides the ship, the WWF is cooperating with the New York-based Photovoices to make a documentary project on the life of whalers in Lamalera village in Lembata island. As many as 50 villagers were lent 50 digital cameras and trained by photographer and chief editor of National Geographic Indonesia magazine Tantyo Bangun.

Photovoices director Virginia Ann McBride said that selected photos taken by the villagers would be exhibited in Jakarta and in the Natural Museum of New York.

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