Shell Wild Coast : The struggle against whaling has come full circle

SOUTH AFRICA comprehensively banned the practice of whaling in 1979. The campaign to ‘save the whales’ is one of our oldest conservation movements, predating the later environmental justice movement which emerged during the 1980s. This week, Royal Dutch Shell was given the go-ahead to invade traditional whaling habitat on the West Coast during the calving season in order to conduct seismic testing.

The move signals a massive shift in government thinking, from conservation and tourism, sustained littoral zone fishing to outright exploitation of marine resources.

The country is not strapped for cash when it comes to land-based mineral resources, but under former President Zuma, it evolved a plan to carve up the seabed and ocean floor in rights allocations to foreign multinationals.

The so-called “Operation Phakisa” plan produced under the former administration is bereft of reference to sustainable marine fisheries management and climate mitigation. Instead, a document produced by the DTI in 2017, sees oil and gas as the next frontier, alongside ship-building, harbour construction, and logistics operations.

The practice of whaling in South Africa gained momentum at the start of the 19th century and ended in 1975.

“By the mid-1960s, South Africa had depleted its population of fin whales, and subsequently those of sperm and sei whales, and had to resort to hunting the small and less-profitable minke whale. Minke whales continued to be caught and brought to the Durban whaling station from 1968 until 1975.”

The only major whaling population left after the decimation (aside from the Humpback and Minke) was that of the Southern Right Whale. Its population has been steadily falling due to climate change. Numbers measured in 2020 “are the second-lowest in October in the past 32 years, after the extremely low numbers of 2016 (55 pairs)“. 

“The Southern Right Whale is seen along the coastline of South Africa every year between July and December.” The whale has a higher population than its northern counterparts, and is “seen along the coastline of South Africa every year between July and December In fact, there are only a few hundred Northern Right Whales individuals left in existence.”

The whales attract hundreds of thousands of tourists to the so-named ‘Whale Coast’ every year, and thus many people are understandably upset at the prospect of Shell displacing the whale population, whether by seismic testing, exploration or drilling.

The issue however, is not simply that of noise pollution nor its impact upon marine tourism. Although ‘seismic surveys reduce cetacean sightings across a large marine ecosystem” the overall impact of the invasive endeavour on the entire eco-system needs to be taken into account — the very real prospect that we may lose our whales altogether, and along with their habitat, the ecosystem, and that means us.

Alongside the collapse of whale habitat, our fisheries and any hope of a sustainable marine resource.

A review of the potential impacts of marine seismic surveys on fish & invertebrates shows the true extent to which anthropogenic noise in the world’s oceans impacts marine fauna has become a subject of growing concern.

“Available evidence suggests that seismic survey noise may influence the behaviour of cetaceans in a number of ways potentially leading to reduced sighting rates e.g. Long- and short-term displacement …”

The displacement of the Southern Right Whale habitat by Shell’s invasive seismic testing, followed by exploration and potential drilling, demonstrates that the whaling industry that once provided blubber to the lubricants industry is being superseded by the oil and gas industry, and the mammals are seen by our government as a mere hindrance to development.

The result will invariably be extinction.

SEE: Shell’s seismic blasting is a threat to South Africa’s fish stocks and totally out of step with global energy trends

SEE: The huge momentum shift in the story of two environmental campaigns against Shell