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Artisanal whaling claims almost 14,000 whales since the 1940s in the Caribbean
A whaler from St. Vincent and the Grenadines scans the horizon for whales.

Artisanal whaling claims almost 14,000 whales since the 1940s in the Caribbean

May 20, 2021 at 11:07am

Artisanal subsistence whaling is alive and well in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a small group of islands in the eastern Caribbean.

It’s only one of four countries where the International Whaling Commission allows whaling to support local, aboriginal communities with the production of food for human consumption and the harvesting of oil for medicine, for cooking and for other household purposes. 

Researchers Jeremy Kiszka of FIU’s Institute of Environment and Russell Fielding of Coastal Carolina University studied the two distinct whaling communities in St. Vincent and the Grenadines — one in the town of Barrouallie and the other on the island of Bequia.

“St. Vincent and the Grenadines has the largest whaling operation in the Western Hemisphere, and we need to better understand the impact of whaling on local cetacean populations,” Kiszka said. “Assessing the magnitude of captures is the first step.”

For 10 years, they made annual trips and interviewed whalers to learn about their operations. Researchers also examined historical documents cataloging the activities of the whaling industry dating back to 1949.

They discovered that whalers from Barrouallie, on the main island of St. Vincent, primarily hunt short-finned pilot whales, killer whales and several smaller dolphin species. Bequia-based whalers meanwhile pursue migrating humpback whales during the winter months.

And unlike infamous commercial whaling activities taking place elsewhere in the world, whaling off Barrouallie is conducted during daylight hours from smaller boats with three crew members. Six whalers man boats in Bequia. 

Regardless of location, whales are harpooned and taken to shore for processing. Whale meat is dried to produce a jelly-like meat that is later rehydrated during cooking. Blubber is cooked in oil to produce a chicharron-like snack called crisps. The whale’s oil is sold as a cold remedy.

Since 1949, researchers noted that whalers in St. Vincent have caught 13,856 whales including 5,896 short-finned pilot whales, 109 killer whales, and 7,851 other small cetaceans. Since 1986, St. Vincent’s whalers have caught 45 humpback whales and two Bryde’s whales. From 1967 to 1974, 8 sperm whales were also caught.

While operations at both locations are monitored by the Fisheries Division of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ministry of Agriculture, the Bequia-based operation is more closely monitored because of oversight demanded by the International Whaling Commission.

Still, the regulation of whaling activity is mostly based on local custom. Whalers are reluctant to catch too many whales for fear of flooding the market and lowering the price of their catch. More research is needed, however, to determine the overall sustainability of either whaling operation. 

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.