21st firmm meeting on the 16th of February 2019 in Aarau

by firmm Team

Text: Andrea Stampfli; Photos: Christine Schmid and Thomas Brückmann

Once again at this year's 21st firmm meeting the congress centre in Aarau is filled: 280 guests from Switzerland and abroad came, including some employees from Spain.

After a warm welcome by firmm president Katharina Heyer, Samuel Notz explains the further program of the evening. He also informs that the foundation board member Prof. Dr. Patricia Holm is currently on an Antarctic expedition with the ship "Polarstern". Instead, her son Fynn Holm, Master of Arts in History and Japanese Studies from the University of Zurich, came.

The future of Japanese coastal whaling

Fynn Holm

Fynn Holm, M.A.

The historian Fynn Holm gives us an insight into the historical and factual background of Japanese whaling. This is a current topic, as Japan has decided to withdraw from the IWC and reintroduce coastal whaling in July 2019. But why does Japan start commercial whaling again and what are the consequences for the Japanese "whale villages"?

To the backgrounds: Coastal whaling has been practised in Japan since 1570. When the coasts were fished empty at the beginning of 1900, Japan stopped whaling for the time being, but then began to hunt on the open sea with the beginning of industrial whaling in 1906. During the food shortage after the Second World War, whaling even saved the lives of many people - but only a few older people remember this.

The reintroduction of commercial whaling was always Japan's goal.

Since 1986 large whales may only be hunted for traditional reasons or for research purposes, Japan has been conducting "scientific" whaling within the rules of the IWC, but in addition maintains the hunting of small whales and dolphins in four Japanese "whale villages". Japan's goal, however, has always been the reintroduction of commercial whaling, for which the country is strongly committed in the IWC and which is based on the unique Japanese whale meat culture. However, there is hardly any demand for whale meat in Japan today.

If one compares whaling with whale-watching in Japan, the numbers speak for themselves. On one side, there are just 40 coastal whalers and 200 Antarctic whalers, which are subsidised with the equivalent of 10 million Swiss francs per year. A future without subsidies (with which scientific whaling was financed) is uncertain - the equipment is outdated, there is no new generation in this sector and the industry is too small to survive. On the other side, more than 200 whale watching companies work at 30 locations, which, for example, generated an annual turnover of 23 million Swiss francs in 2008 with 190.000 visitors.

Many Japanese consider the smear campaign against Japanese whaling to be pure harassment.

Why is Japan leaving the IWC now? For over 30 years, a compromise with the IWC had been sought in vain. Leaving the IWC means that Japan will again be allowed to hunt minke whales which provide the best meat but could not be hunted commercially due to their inclusion in the group of large whales. In addition, Japan's Antarctic fleet is very old, but a replacement would be far too expensive - scientific whaling is not lucrative enough. Coastal whaling, on the other hand, is more popular in Japan.

Although there have always been anti-whaling movements amongst the Japanese, many Japanese now perceive the ban on whaling and the smear campaign against Japanese whaling ("Japan Bashing") as pure harassment. So now an anti-anti-whaling movement has formed - people, who are actually against whaling, stand up for its legalization, because they are tired of the constant paternalism from abroad. Another argument is also very disturbing: The resignation is justified among other things with the fact that America and England likewise withdraw from international agreements (TTIP, Brexit etc.). Thus, Japan's leaving the IWC is primarily politically motivated and can also be attributed to the very poor political climate worldwide.

What current issues kept firmm busy in 2018?

Jörn Selling

Jörn Selling, marine biologist , firmm Tarifa

Jörn begins with the comment that he particularly liked the statement from the previous speaker that Japanese whaling was not economically viable.


Then Jörn resumes his lecture from last year - about the bay of Algeciras and the SABA (system for mooring ships in the bay of Gibraltar). Once again he stresses the importance of the great biodiversity in the Bay of Algeciras: "Seagrass beds in particular are the best way to protect the climate, as seagrass binds the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But the anchors of the large ships destroy the ground and the seagrass beds. As Jörn had already explained in detail at the last firmm meeting, there are methods to avoid this damage - for example the so-called Australian screw or solid concrete blocks to which ships can be attached via buoys. Several such anchor blocks are already in use at the refinery and the mussel bay. There one could see how the sea grass recovers.

More pressure could be exerted on the port authorities with underwater images.

The idea of tackling this problem arose last year. Therefore, underwater images would have to document the exact condition of the seabed. The European Sea Ports Organisation and EcoPorts regularly assess the top environmental priorities of port authorities in Europe. These organisations could exert pressure on the port authorities with the appropriate images. Jörn has already written to several companies about the documentation, but they could not help or have not yet responded. Another solution would be our own diving robot, which would cost about 1.800 Euro. This robot has a maximum diving depth of 100 meters and can record up to 4 hours of film in 4K. Jörn is more in favour of buying the device, as a company would certainly be more expensive.

Orcas and Pilot whales

In the second part of his lecture, Jörn focuses on a topic he prefers to talk about: animals. It is about assessing the ambiguous relationship between Orcas and Pilot whales. Whether the Orcas really expel the Pilot whales is difficult to answer, as this cannot be observed directly. But as soon as the Pilot whales have disappeared from the strait, the fishermen report Orca sightings. Only a few days later do the Pilot whales return to the strait after having retreated far into the Mediterranean.

It can be well observed, however, how the Pilot whales later chase the Orcas out of the Strait of Gibraltar. The distance between the animals is then relatively small, which is why this behaviour can be better documented.

It is known that there are different groups of Orcas around the globe. On the one hand, there are those who mainly eat meat and hunt mammals, they are silent hunters. On the other hand, there are the pure fish eaters; they usually communicate loudly, since the fish can hardly hear anyway. Then there are the opportunists among the Orcas, who adapt to the situation and consume both fish and meat. So the question is whether the Orcas of the Strait of Gibraltar only eat fish or whether the Pilot whales should be afraid of them.

Do "our" Orcas only eat fish or could they become dangerous for pilot whales?

In order to be able to estimate this better, firmm collects data on each trip, which Jörn now presents to us in his statistics. What is certain is that 2018 was not a good Orca year. When the Orcas are in the strait depends on the fishermen. In the past there was no quota system. The fishermen started in May and fished until there were no tunas left. In 2007 a quota was introduced, since then the fishermen do not start fishing until June. Also the Orcas are now only there from June, but stay until autumn. During this time, the Pilot whales are usually in larger groups. This allows them to defend themselves better. In recent years, however, increasingly smaller Pilot whale groups have been observed. The reason for this has to be investigated more closely in the future. Maybe it is because the Orcas are longer in the strait now and the Pilot whales retreat more into the Mediterranean.

A question about tuna fishing from the audience

At the end there is the question from the audience that the fishermen hardly catch big tunas anymore and if anything would happen in that regard. Jörn says that the quota implementation is basically good and that there are considerations to grant higher quotas to the small line fishermen. This kind of fishing is sustainable and also good for the Orcas. In addition, the fishermen are constantly being made aware of the fact that the protection of the tuna also ensures that their grandchildren can catch tuna. Another problem is that many fishermen believe that the tuna eats other fish away from them - because the number of catches of local fish is declining sharply. But the tuna has always been here, which has never been a problem for the fish stocks.

It is to be hoped that the quota system will be successful in the long term, so that tuna stocks can recover and older and larger animals can once again roam the strait.

Relaunch www.firmm.org

Heike Pahlow und Mario Müller

Heike Pahlow and Mario Müller

It is to be hoped that the quota system will be successful in the long term, so that tuna stocks can recover and older and larger animals can once again roam the strait.

As Heike explains, the new start page has been optimized especially for visitors who want to book an excursion quickly. They usually end up on the start page and should immediately find what they are looking for. Those who are interested in details, however, have more time and are willing to browse through the subpages.

Other important aspects in regard to the design of the website are illustrated by Mario with some examples, for instance that colour vision defects are taken into account and that visually impaired people can have text descriptions read aloud to the pictures. In times of the smartphone also short loading times of the pages are important: At Google Page Speed the new firmm page has now reached a maximum of 100 %! In order to further improve the usability, Mario is looking forward to ideas and suggestions for improvement.

Heike presents what is new on the website. Altogether there is about three times as much content as before: The species descriptions of the whales and dolphins are more detailed and the research section was completely revised. Guidelines + Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about whale watching have been added. There is information about Katharina Heyer, the foundation board and the employees of firmm as well as interesting facts about Tarifa and its surroundings. Heike would like to thank everyone for their help, especially Jörn, who contributed more than 50 % of the data and texts for the homepage.

Mario now shows how important it was to optimize the website for mobile devices as well; after all, 58 percent on average visit the firmm site with their smartphone. The structure of the new website now adapts to the size of the end devices.

Finally, Heike introduces some of her "gadgets": Short videos that can be used to explain rules for whale-watching or create quiz questions.

Board of Trustees, employees and volunteers in the 2018 season

Katharina Heyer

Katharina introduces the foundation board as well as all employees and volunteers. She expresses her thanks to them and to everyone who contributed to the success of a great 2018 season.

" A day of a volunteer at firmm"

Sketch by Annette Dohms qnd Daniel Ihly

Annette and Daniel liven up the evening with their entertaining and very amusing sketch. Slightly exaggerated they play situations from the everyday life of the firmm-Volunteers, who occasionally have to deal with somewhat "special tourists". There is a lot of laughter and applause!

From the point of view of our foundation board

Samuel Notz

Samuel Notz

After the break Samuel presents the purpose and goal of the firmm foundation: to create a meeting place between humans and animals according to the motto "Only what we know and love, we also protect".

On the one hand, there is the element of protection and prevention: the imparting of knowledge about the Strait of Gibraltar and its marine inhabitants and the possibility that humans and whales meet respectfully at equal terms. The communication between humans and whales leads again and again to impressive and emotional experiences.

With firmm-education pupils, students and prospective biologists find a platform for information and the publishing of their own work.

The foundation is financed exclusively through the income from the excursions and from donations, for which Samuel is very grateful!

Review of the season 2018

Vortrag von Katharina Heyer

Katharina Heyer

Katharina first explains to her guests the exact and special location as well as some achievements of firmm. One of the greatest successes was that firmm was able to prevent a new ferry connection to Tangier, which would have run directly through the animals' main area of residence, thanks to the data collected.

Then Katharina talks about the year 2018: There were 460 trips with a total of 31,090 tourists; because of the weather it was not possible to sail on 75 days. In 1,600 Charlas, knowledge about the strait, the animals and environmental issues was passed on to the guests. Also one school in Tarifa got lectures and participated in one excursion.

In a short film we see how a firmm trip takes place. Afterwards Katharina presents the numbers of the sightings of the animals and shows short films with wonderful sequences about all whale and dolphin species occurring in the strait. But she also describes unpleasant moments, such as the fate of the female Pilot whale Lola, who was equipped with a transmitter on the fin, after which the fin was strongly inflamed. We all hope that the bad injury will heal well over the winter and that Lola will be better when we hopefully see her again this year.

Katharina also shows films by the course participants Sonja and Nina as well as Raffael and Sara. And finally we see a video in which the Orca male Camorro shares a caught tuna with the whole family - everyone is allowed to join in. This shows once more how social and intelligent these animals are. It should also be mentioned that the Orcas had a newborn baby with them, which was baptized "Tina".

The 21st firmm meeting ends by mentioning the media that reported about firmm last year and thanking all supporters of firmm. Of course the date of the next meeting is announced.

The 22nd firmm meeting will take place on the 22nd of February 2020.

We are looking forward to seeing you again..

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