Understanding Our History with Whales
Photos by Jom Acebes

Jom Acebes is on a mission. This doctor of veterinary medicine, a marine mammal specialist, intends to shed light on the Philippine’s history with whales by mapping out the origins of subsistence whaling in the country. This involves comparing the past and present distribution of previously exploited whales in the country, and comparing information on the whaling grounds used in the past and presently known areas of distribution of the whales hunted. Jom believes this will help us understand the changes in the abundance and distribution of these whales over time, the reasons for these changes, and their ecological and social impacts.

For this mission, Jom surveys the islands of Bohol, Camiguin and Salay, Misamis Oriental, where local whaling practices have been known to occur, and the Sulu-Sulawesi seas frequented by 19th century American whalers.

Jom begins her mission with field and archival studies in the Central Visayas and Mindanao region of the Philippines for two months, followed by research at the University of Oxford libraries and the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library for five months. The second phase finds Jom doing more field and archival research, this time for eight months, in the Sulu Sulawesi Seascape of the Philippines, in areas suspected to have a history of whaling (Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro, Balabac in Southern Palawan, and the islands of Tawi-Tawi). Challenges mount as Jom finds that historical documentation in the country is practically nonexistent, and personal accounts appear questionable.

Philippine fisheries

In an archipelago made up of more than 1,700 islands, about 1.3 million fisherfolk and their families depend on fisheries as a source of income. The increasing demand for marine resources both locally and abroad has led to a big decline in these resources, particularly fisheries. This has forced local fishermen to increase their fishing efforts, target new species of fish or become unselective in fishing, change their fishing gear, and search for new fishing grounds. Some even engage in hunting other large marine animals such as whales and dolphins due to foreign demand, or as a generous source of protein for the community. All of these actions affect the marine mammal population, many of which are endangered or exist in very low numbers.This has had a profound effect in the marine ecosystem and consequently in the fisheries that tens of millions of people depend on.

An old whaler from Sagay, Camiguin holding part of the skull and mandible of one of the baleen whale he caught over 10 years agoMarine mammals such as cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – are key ecological indicators. Their disappearance leads to imbalances in the marine ecosystem. Jom says that understanding such interconnectedness in the environment will help communities manage marine resources more effectively. She emphasizes the importance of learning what it was like centuries ago, what resources were available then, how it was utilized compared with the current status, which can serve as guidelines in selecting management tools and assessing the effectiveness of existing policies.

The roots of whaling in the Philippines

Jom’s mission thus far traces the documented history of whaling in the Philippines back to the era of American whaling (1800’s). Given the abundant local terms relating to whales and whaling and the recollections of some older residents in the areas of her study, it seems likely that American whaling most likely occurred alongside local or ‘indigenous’ whaling in Bohol. The exact beginnings of indigenous whaling cannot be determined given the present data. In Bohol, it seems that whaling evolved from manta ray fishing. The history of local whaling is evident in the evolution of hunting tools. The use of the toggle-harpoon outside of Bohol is believed to have been copied from either the Boholanos who migrated to the islands, or through contact with American sperm whalers in the region.

Jom’s research shows that people in different regions in the Philippines have been eating whales and dolphins for centuries. Large marine mammals were hunted as they provided immediate food supply for many families, no part of the animal went to waste. Different tribes with varying beliefs and practices, utilize these marine mammals in different ways. Each tribal group cannot be taken in isolation from one another, as they are inextricably linked socially, culturally and geographically. The origin of each practice is difficult to determine given the lack of data.

To this day, whales and dolphins in the Philippines are caught directly or incidentally as bycatch – accidental catch of cetaceans arising from fishing of other species. Although there are national laws prohibiting such acts, many fishermen do not adhere to them. Legislation thus lacks teeth as the laws are not properly enforced by the responsible government agencies. Local fishermen clamor for an end to the whaling ban. They say that competition with commercial fishers is taking a heavier toll on their livelihood. Large animals such as whales and dolphins would fetch more money and provide the food they need to feed their families.

What’s next?

Jom’s findings show that the decline in numbers of Sperm, Humpback, and Bryde’s whales may have resulted from several factors: a decline in populations due to intensive whaling; lack of historical and current data on abundance and distribution for proper comparison; and, the migration of animals into a different area. But to achieve a more comprehensive historical distribution map of exploited whale species in the Philippines, she stresses the importance of a wider investigation into the issue. Key information may be found in pre-colonial and Spanish colonial trade records as well as pre-World War II records. Jom also calls for a complete examination of records of all American, as well as British whaling ships that frequented the Pacific and Indo-China. Analysis of such historical data can be used to estimate not only historical abundance but also to determine seasonal and spatial distribution of whales and changes in population.

For more recent data on whale distribution, vessel survey data should be updated and should cover previously less studied areas known to be inhabited by cetaceans such as the south and western coast of Palawan, southern and eastern Mindanao, the eastern coast of central Luzon, and northwestern Luzon.

In proposing solutions towards more effective marine management to save the whales and other marine resources, Jom cautions against being too prescriptive. Indigenous communities have been dependent on whaling for centuries. It has become part of their culture, thus, solving the “problem” of whaling is not as easy as enacting laws of prohibition. “We need to put more thought and analysis into establishing proper solutions,” says Jom. “Current regulations should be based on sound science and socio-economic studies rather than on political agendas.”

Such a mission involves a very tedious process requiring utmost patience, understanding, and consideration for local beliefs and ways of life. Indeed there are many struggles along the way, some even life threatening. At the end of the day, Jom pushes on with this difficult mission not merely to save the whales, but more importantly, to help us all make sense of our marine heritage and work together to preserve it.

Photos by Jom Acebes