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Whale-watchers horrified to witness fishermen harpoon two orcas

A pair of orca whales swim near Orcas Island in Washington state in 2003. (Ted S. Warren/AP file)

It was the moment the whale-watchers had been waiting for.

As their boat bobbed on the warm waters of the Caribbean, the tour guide told the 40 or so cruise-ship passengers that a pod of orcas had swum into viewing distance.

They were passengers on a larger ship that was sailing the Caribbean Islands and had booked this separate expedition with Fantasea tours off the coast of St. Vincent, the main island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, according to local media reports. The whale- and dolphin-watching tour promises “a show put on in their natural environment” that would be “spectacular beyond words.”

But as the whale-watchers looked on, a small fishing boat motored nearby, closing the gap between it and the four killer whales. Bolted to the front of the boat was a small, rifle-powered harpoon.

Ken Issacs, a crew member on the whale-watching boat, realized what was happening, according to Caribbean360.

“He shouted to [the fishermen] to leave it alone but was immediately dismissed,” the news site reported. “A persistent Issacs then instructed the captain of the boat to go over to where the large killer whale was.”

But they were too late. With a loud bang, the harpoon speared an orca as the terrified whale-watchers looked on. Moments later, the fishermen gored another one.

Issacs told the news organization that “guests were visibly shaken and many were crying, even as they returned to shore in Kingstown.”

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Thomson Cruises has canceled its whale-watching tours with Fantasea, according to the Antigua Daily Observer, and has considered no longer sailing to the island. The decision underscored a deeper clash in worldviews between tourists horrified by the whale killing and local “fisherfolk” who eke out an existence by killing things that live in the ocean.

The cruise company didn’t immediately respond to inquiries made by The Washington Post.

The cruises pump money into the local economy and generate an income for people such as Issacs. Whale fishing has been a way of life — albeit an increasingly controversial one — for centuries.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves’s comments on a radio show underscored the conflict.

Killing the orcas “was plain wrong,” he said, according to the Observer. “What the fisherman did, I want to emphasize this, what he did was plain wrong. Not just because it happened in front of tourists but [because] he must not kill the orcas.”

But he also defended the whaler as “a very hard-working fisherman” from Barrouallie, a coastal town.

A similar conflict has played out an ocean away, in Baja California, Mexico.

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The international community has made an effort to save the vaquita, the world’s smallest and possibly cutest porpoise. Mexican fishermen don’t hunt the porpoise, but vaquita get snared in the nets used to capture the totoaba, a fish whose bladder is a Chinese delicacy that many believe has healing powers. The bladders can fetch thousands of dollars for the impoverished fishermen.

According to The Post’s Katie Mettler, advocates “have desperately tried nearly everything to save the creatures: government regulation, poacher patrols, U.S. military dolphins and a far-fetched, risky captivity plan.”

Last month, amid the crackdown, a “gang of dozens of fishermen” attacked inspectors and destroyed 15 vehicles and patrol boats, Mettler reported.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature species program says there’s not enough data on orcas to determine if they’re endangered or not, though the marine mammals have been affected by the depletion of fisheries and, in some areas, by hunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as endangered.

Here are some of the animals that have been saved by the Endangered Species Act. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Pressure to save orcas has been mounting in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote on Wednesday that whaling is on the decline in St. Vincent.

“It’s pursued by a small number of people in the Caribbean nation, and is essentially a commercial hunting operation masquerading as subsistence,” he said in a blog post that advocated for whale watching to replace whale hunting.

Now, the Caribbean nation’s government plans to introduce legislation banning the killing of orcas.

“What will happen is that legislation will be brought to stop that killing,” Gonsalves said. “It will be made an offense in the same way we have done with turtles.”

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