Tiny island nation pushes world toward whale preservation

The Seychelles may be one of the world's tiniest countries, but it has one of the loudest voices when it comes to marine conservation. The island nation off the coast of Africa has been a leading advocate of whale conservation in the Indian Ocean and of the campaign to have the Indian Ocean declared the world's only whale sanctuary.

To further its aim of saving whales, the Seychelles recently invited members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to a conference on the ''nonconsumptive uses of whales and dolphins.''

''As commercial whaling is being phased out, there is increasing interest in whales themselves, because they're beautiful or they sing nicely or they're intelligent,'' said Sidney Holt, an adviser on whales to the government of the Seychelles and a participant in the conference. ''We want to make money out of live whales, not only dead ones.''

Dr. Holt, a former director of the fisheries program of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, has advised the Seychelles on whales since 1979. Although its land area is only 270 square miles, the territorial waters of the Seychelles archipelago cover 150,000 square miles. The country considers the sea its greatest resource.

The Seychelles has introduced several initiatives on whaling conservation to the IWC. In 1979 the country proposed that the Indian Ocean be made a whale sanctuary, and that the sperm whale, whose numbers have been dwindling at an alarming rate, be protected. It also urged that ''pirate whaling'' by ships that fly flags of convenience, which are not subject to the laws of the IWC, be stopped.

The IWC adopted these measures. And in 1982 the Seychelles proposed another idea: Commercial whaling should be phased out gradually and be banned completely by 1986. So far four members of the IWC - Japan, the Soviet Union, Norway, and Peru - have expressed reservations on the proposal, but Dr. Holt is confident that between now and 1986 those countries will withdraw their reservations.

Last April, at a meeting in Botswana of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Seychelles proposed a ban on international trade in whale products.

Meanwhile, the members of the IWC, which includes lawyers, biologists, and teachers from around the world, have been preparing for the post-whaling era by looking at the many different uses of live whales.

Hal Whitehead of Newfoundland is a member of a whale research project in the Indian Ocean that is funded by the World Wildlife Fund and based off the coast of Sri Lanka. Until recently, he said, most research has been done on the bodies of dead whales. Mr. Whitehead's team is studying them live.

''We've been looking at their intricate social behavior,'' he said. ''We looked at the young calves, the way the mothers switched and suckled different calves. We track them as they dive 900 meters down. Off the coast of Oman, we heard humpbacked whales singing.''

Mr. Whitehead says that his group's research has attracted an explosion of interest in Sri Lanka. ''Every day articles appear in the paper about whales, dolphins, and dugongs (seacows). They're even issuing whale postage stamps.''

No one knows how many whales live in the Indian Ocean, but Mr. Whitehead's group has found at least four great whale species and 13 species of smaller whales off the Sri Lankan coast.

Commenting on other ''nonconsumptive'' uses of whales, Dr. Holt says: ''There's the cultural value of whales as wonderful animals that should be there. Then there's the ecological value of whales. The biosystem in the sea, as on land, should be stable. Scientists now believe it's important not to remove the predators. Whales are the big eaters in the sea. Their role in the ecological balance is valuable.''

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