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Collaborative Managment in the Tourism of Whale Observation: A Strategy for Planning an Developing Ecotourism in the Samaná Region

By: Leida Buglass (1)

Spanish version / version en español

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Samaná Bay: Caribbean Cradle of Humpback Whales
  3. Dizzying Growth: An Opening for Negative Impacts
  4. In Search of Solutions — Steps to Organizing Whalewatching
  5. In Search of Guaranteeing Results — Co-Management of Whalewatching
  6. Important Responsibilities of Stakeholders
  7. Problems to Solve ………… The Process Continues
  8. Collaborative Management — A Model for Ecotourism
Look for more information on Cebse and other of its publications in Kiskeya Alternative
CEBSE : Center for the Conservation and Ecodevelopment of Samaná Bay and Its Surroundings (CEBSE in Spanish)
Address:  Ave. Malecón, Tiro al Blanco Apdo.132, Samaná, República Dominicana. email /
Tel. (809) 538-2042, fax (809) 538-2792

Executive Summary
Samaná Bay, Dominican Republic is considered one of the best places in the world to whalewatch. This article tells of the consequences of the growth of this activity and the actions carried out by CEBSE and other institutions to minimize impacts. The co-management model is a strategy for counteracting problems as well as establishing ecotourism practices that promote conservation and a healthy development of the activity.
Samaná Bay: Caribbean Cradle of Humpback Whales

Samaná Bay, located in the northeast part of the Dominican Republic, receives each year between January and March its perennial and loyal visitors: the humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), one of the most popular cetaceans due to their animation and acrobats.

The whales migrate from the North Atlantic to Caribbean waters for very special reasons: look for mates, mate, and give birth. The Dominican coasts are one of the vital areas for the reproduction of this species in danger of extinction. The temperate waters, shallow and protected by the bay are ideal for birth and critical for the rapid growth of the baby whales. At the same time, their presence converts the Bay into an exclusive scene for the facile observation of the social and reproductive behaviors of these colossal marine mammals.

Not only is Samaná a world class whale watching location, but it also boasts the most attractive landscape in the country.

Dizzying Growth: An Opening for Negative Impacts

Whalewatching has become in recent years an important recreational activity in the ecotourism industry. It is now one of the principal tourist attractions, as much for national tourists, as for foreigners.

At the beginning of th decade, whalewatching enjoyed a rapid growth in visitation, and thus generated:

  • Increases in the number of trips using a variety of different kinds of boats
  • Increases in boating services
  • High expectations of rapid income by some members of the community and national and international tour operators. There was a consequent proliferation of pirate guides, unprofessional and unregistered.
  • Imprudently close approaches to whales, mothers with offspring, without foreseeing the possible impacts on the species
  • A poor international image of whalewatching (through harrassing the whales)
  • Other problems were similarly identified:
  • Lack of state control with a corresponding legal system
  • Insufficient security measures for tourists (lack of life jackets, first aid, etc.)
  • Little experience of captains in handling their boats around whales
  • Little knowledge about humpbacks on the part of tour operators, guides, captains, local populations (such things as characteristics, habitat, behavior patterns, etc.)
  • Lack of quality services
  • In Search of Solutions — Steps to Organizing Whalewatching

    Later with the support of CMC in 1991, the Center for the Conservation and Ecodevelopment of Samaná Bay and Its Surroundings (CEBSE in Spanish) was established to promote and execute "activities tending to achieve the conservation and sustainable use of natural and cultural resources in Samaná Bay and its surroundings, with the active participation of the communities ". CEBSE promotes the establishment of the Biosphere Reserve.

    From this bleak context was born an initiative to search for measures to promote the conservation of the species and its environment on the national and international levels. The first steps to organizing this activity began in 1988 with the presence of the Center for Marine Biology Research (CIBIMA in Spanish) of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, as well as other centers and marine and coastal American research institutions, such as the Center for Marine Conservation (2). Together they proposed regulations for trips with the hope of ending the harrassment of the gentle giants.

    Whalewatching Visitors
    Year  Visitors*
    1985  165
    1986 900
    1987 15.300
    1996  30.000
    1997  20.000
    1998  21.784
    1999  30,468

    (*)  estimados 

    Marine Transport Companies
    1995   2 companies
    1994 18 companies
    1998  21 companies

    For 1998 permits were given to 39 trips  to watch whales, in 1999 45.


    Source: /  Fuentes: *Diagnóstico del Sector Turismo de la Provincia de Samaná (1996) CEBSE, CMC, USAID *Informe de Observación de Ballena 1998 por  M. Lamelas y L. Martínez y 1999 por M. Lamelas
    CEBSE tried to work with all stakeholders (community members, governmental organizations, and private business) with the goal of developing management strategies (3) and promoting across all sectors better planning, products, and management not just for whalewatching but for all tourist activities that depend on the region’s natural resources (4).

    In 1994, an important step was taken in the local sector: the creation of the Association of Boat Owners of Samaná Bay, ASDUBAHISA, formed by marine transport businesses that work in the Bay and at the same time are the principal users of the resource.

    ASDUBAHISA along with CEBSE, CIBIMA and CMC develop and modify the regulations for whalewatching that the boat owners then implement voluntarily.

    With the goal of involving other stakeholders, a participatory evaluation was carried out (5), one that presents an accurate picture of tourism in the Samaná region. It analyzes the situation and records visitor and participant opinion (local businesses, authorities, community groups, captains). This evaluation clarifies for the actores the need to improve whalewatching in terms of service quality, visitor security, and the prevention of whale harrassment.

    Between 1995 and 1996 CEBSE, with the help of the Center for Marine Conservation, did a study (6) on whalewatching with the objective of measuring the impacts. Various weaknesses were detected in the trips and regulations, and it offered corrective recommendations that would be agreeable to captains, boat owners, and related government institutions.

    To improve local sectors involved in this activity, CEBSE-CMC offered in 1996 a course on whalewatching to local guides to improve and widen their knowledge about this very special marine mammal. It also attempted to improve their abilities as nature guides as well as improve the attitudes and behaviors with the hope that they could promote and share the importance of the presence and protection of the humpbacks in the Caribbean waters, as well as mitigate impacts in their habitat.

    Despite these measures and efforts, the levels of compliance with the regulations, control, and protecction still were not at all satisfactory.

    In Search of Guaranteeing Results — Co-Management of Whalewatching

    In 1996 the Samaná Bay was declared a Marine Mammal Sanctuary (Decree 233-96). The 1997 season was administered by the Sanctuary Overseeing Commission that implemented a system of supervision and enforcement of regulations. After the 1997 season, the government suspended the marine sanctuary status, leaving a legal hole (7) with respect to the area and to regulation of whalewatching. Thus arose the need to create a mechanism that not only assured an appropriate management for the 1998 season, but also assured the protection of the whales and their habitat. Thus CEBSE and CMC presented a proposal to manage using a collaborative or co-management model.

    The general steps for establishing co-management of whalewatching were the following:

  • Identify the stakeholders: government agencies, NGOs and local businesses (in this case the National Park Service, Tourism Ministry, Navy, CEBSE, Association of Boat Owners)
  • Confirm the desire to participate voluntarily in the management and determine common interests (through various individual and collective meetings)
  • Clarify responsibilities and determine rolls for each participant
  • Write a proposal "Integrated Whalewatching Management" submitted to the stakeholders
  • Formalize shared responsibilities, forms of collaboration, agreements, and mutual actions by means of a memorandum of understanding
  • Follow up on the established management especially in judicial, educational, technical, organizational, and monitoring aspects
  • More specifically the role of CEBSE includes The Memorandum of Understanding includes whalewatching regulations and enforcement mechanisms. Violations are made known and reported by the Park Service and backed up by the Navy (written warning, then suspension for a day, etc.). This system yielded positive results in the 1998 and 1999 seasons, by reducing whale harrassing and organizing the activity, among other results.

    Only operators with prior experience, good understanding of the regulations, etc. are allowed to participate in whalewatching. As long as new operators are unaware of the possible impacts on the whales, it is not recommended to issue permits. CEBSE began a monitoring program in the 1999 season to see if there were changes in whale behavior on account of the boats.

    It is worth mentioning that the association indirectly organizes other community beneficiaries such as captains, local businesses offering food and drink, craftsmen, and others (8)). The association is interested in improving the quality of the service and image of whalewatching, avoided the harrassment of whales, and gauranteeing a long-term sustainability.

    The Association and CEBSE signed a cooperative agreement in 1998 with the goal of strengthening the Association as ecotour operators, improve conditions for competing in the national and international markets, coordinate joint actions for the protection of habits, management of whalewatching and other tourist actions in the fragile zones of the region, among other tasks.

    Important Responsibilities of Stakeholders

    National Park Service pushes for the compliance of regulations in the Bay.

    Navy controls departures of boats with permission and applies sanctions to violators*.

    Association of Boat Owners commits its captains to comply with the regulations and respect the imposed sanctions. Besides it supports and helps guards and volunteers realize the work in their trips.

    Ministry of Tourism promotes whalewatching and vies for quality services

    CEBSE offers technical assistance to stakeholders (with transparency for the entire management process, logistical support, collaboration in patrolling and monitoring, impartial observation of regulation compliance, etc.). Besides preparing educational materials in different languages, CEBSE organizes and coordinates with the Park Service and Association weekly meetings with captains and crews.

    (* The money received through permits and sanctions is used to pay salaries and operations )

    This model has yielded significant and valuable results, such as:
  • The collaborative management (MOU) is not seen as rules imposed from outside but rather a form of regional and coordinated management. There exists a desire to work together on the park of stakeholders so that the agreements are realized.
  • The co-management defined the responsibilities and functions of each stakeholder and has encouraged them to comply, reducing conflicts among principal users and governmental regulators.
  • The satisfactory coordination between stakeholders has facilitated a join decision making process, reducing the need for administrative and bureacratic measures, taking immediate corrective measures, logistical support, among others, and has permited a successful untangling in whalewatching.
  • It has improved enforcement of regulations and a quality tourist development during whalewatching season.
  • The captains and crews on the trips (from local population) have recognized the important role of "director actors" in tourism and the protection of the whales
  • The permitting system and enforcement (9) have successfully fulfilled their part considerably improving the image of whalewatching nationally and internationally (10).
  • Also, thanks to the success of co-management, the following has also occurred:
  • Samaná Bay has again been declared a marine mammal sanctuary (Decree 136-99)  (11)
  • Area management was assigned to National Park Service (legalizing the responsibility)
  • The National Commission for the Protection of Marine Mammals was created and works with other national and related organizations.
  • Problems to Solve ………… The Process Continues

    There are still problems to be solved:

  • The majority of visitors come by means of "all included" packages of one day organized by operators from other parts of the country, leaving only few benefits to the local economy
  • Some authorities need to be shown that whalewatching, in order to remain an ecotourism activity, should consider limiting the type and number of trips, given that expansion could damage the activity.
  • Other groups and community organizations should be integrated into economic activities related to whalewatching. This way local pride can be promoted such that the local community identifies with the whale spiritually and not just economically.
  • Still there are few operators who have guides specializing in whales and realizing the importance of their protection and presence in the area. Although CEBSE has offered local and national whalewatching guide training in 1996 and 1998, the results have been weak (12). For this problem, then, other solutions must be saught to improve whalewatching.
  • CEBSE has tried to fill this last hole by publishing a booklet in four languages about the humpback whales and regulations. Also CEBSE developed the Samaná Nature Center that has an exhibition on the whales (posters, videos, whale skeleton, etc.) was warmly received by national and foreign visitors.

    Collaborative Management — A Model for Ecotourism

    Co-management is not a novel model, given that it uses traditional management systems. Nevertheless what it has done differently in this case is to integrate resource management in a wider socioeconomic context. It encourages all the stakeholders to assume shared responsibilities and not leave control in only a few hands (normally government institutions).

    Probably in few activities like ecotourism is the presence of so many sectors so marked: environmentalists, business people, government, local community, tourists. The interventions, interests, and responsibilities of these sectors will determine if ecotourism complies with the criteria that have been used to characterize it.

  • Promote conservation of threatened species
  • Way of promoting environmental values
  • Generate significant local participation (not only in benefits but in decision making)
  • Co-management presents an opportunity as in this case of moulding ecotourism such that it is really practiced effectively. Upon creating a system that coordinates among the different state and private institutions, one can mobilize policies and execute coordinated activities. This experience has made it possible to realize regulated ecotouristic practices that are not destructive to the resource (such as whales) and its habitat is also our own.

    Other Bibliographic Sources
  •  CANARI - Caribbean Natural Resources Institute - Informe de Actividades (1993)
  •  La Participación Comunitaria en la Gestión Ambiental y el Co-manejo en la República Dominicana. CEBSE-CANARI (Actas de Conferencias (1994)

  • Footnotes

    (1)  Avising in the Center for Conservation and Ecodevelopment in Samaná Bay and Surroundings and cooperator with the German Service of Social and Technical Cooperation (Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst/ded). This work is not the sole effort of the author.  Much of the effort has been and continues to be done by institutions and businesses (CEBSE, DNP, CMC, Whale Samaná), that have perservered in this process to make it work. And still the process continues…

    (2)  The Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts also collaborated, the College of the Atlantic in Maine

    (3)  See Integrated Management Plan for the Samaná Region, Dominican Republic — Strategies for Sustainable Development:  Community Participation, Environmental Education, Tourism, Fishing.  June 1996. CEBSE-CMC

    (4)  For example in the area of Salto del Limón (a project for strengthening local communities)

    (5)  Evaluation of the Tourism Sector in the Province of Samaná (1996).  Cofinancing Project of AID/CMC/CEBSE

    (6)  By Robert Bowman, contracted by CMC. Mr. Bowman is an expert in whalewatching from boats, from business owner for the last 11 years, in Maine. See:  The Level of Security, Quality, and Impact on the Humpback Whale Observation Industry in Samaná Bay, Dominican Republic by Miguel A. Jorge CMC - 1996.

    (7)  In 1997, Decree 319-97 nullified Decree 233-96 and the area lost its status as a marine sanctuary.  It was declared Samaná Biosphere Reserve by the National Park Service which would manage the area as a national park until the MAB Committee submitted the proposal for biosphere reserve status to UNESCO.  On September 10 Decree 319-97 is suspended by Decree 394-97 and a commision is created for its revision. In:  Informe de Observación de Ballenas 1999 by Mónica Lamelas, DNP (Unpublished document).  As a result, there was no public entity to be responsible for regulating whalewatching.

    (8)  This group does not form part of the MOU, but assumes the established actions for co-management

    (9)  Thanks for the great effort of those in the National Park Service and in collaboration with the Navy and CEBSE.  See Report on Whalewatching in 1998/99 Season by Mónica Lamelas and Lorenzo Martínez

    (10)  In the 1997, 1998 and 1999 seasons the Bay has been visited by a great number of users:  experts and marine mammal experts, international tour agencies, international environmental groups, international reports for magazines and television for national and international audiences.  The great interest by the humpback itself.

    (11)   The Silver Bank, Christmas Bank, and Samaná Bay comprise the Marine Mammal Sanctuaries of the Dominican Republic (23,445.35 km²)

    (12)  On one hand, the Ministry of Tourism does no requires that boats or tour operator have guides specialized in whalewatching.  On the other hand the tour operators (members of ASDUBAHISA are not tour operators) say that they give their clients pertinent information about the whales before leaving.  Besides they argue that having their own bilingual guides and do not need the service of others.  Nevertheless, it has been observed that the interpretation that these guides practice is insufficient.  There exists a resistance on the part of the majority of operators to invest and spend in order to offer a specialize interpretive service to clients.

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