Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.9

January 27, 2005


Sociologist explores world of whale hunters and watchers

By Janice Hamilton

Katja Neves Graca

Sociologist Katja Neves-Graca with two whalers who were greatly revered in their village of Lajesdopico, in the Azores. Gill (pronounced Gilles) and Mestre (or Captain) Leonel have both died since the photo was taken.

Concordia sociologist Katja Neves-Graca once spent a year and a half in the Azores, hanging around boats, watching whales, and chatting at village cafés with the locals, all in the name of fieldwork.

It sounds like a pretty laid-back life until she admits that she became completely obsessed with her research, often sleeping only four hours a night, and frequently slipping off to the ladies’ room to jot down notes, out of sight of her study subjects.

Nevertheless, it was a wonderful experience. “I got to live a life I would never otherwise have had,” she said.

Neves-Graca, who came to Concordia last July as an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, now hopes to follow up on that experience by studying the whale watching industry in Canada.

She undertook her research in the Azores while she was doing her PhD in 1998. She was interested in studying “what happens when people are faced with the need to be more ecologically sensitive.”

She observed what can happen when the government steps in to regulate limited resources, and conflict develops between people who want access to these resources. In this case, the limited resources included both whales and tourists.

The Azores is a group of islands in the mid-Atlantic where whale hunting was central to the economy for a century.

After hunting became illegal in the 1980s, people realized they could make a living by taking tourists to watch the sperm whales, fin whales, grey whales and dolphins. But the community could only accommodate a limited number of tourists, the whales could only tolerate a certain amount of watching, and competition had become fierce. It became evident that regulations were needed or the industry would collapse.

Neves-Graca watched tensions grow between those who followed certain scientific advisors and others who felt that the local knowledge of the former whale hunters was being ignored.

Furthermore, some people wanted fast-moving but noisy Zodiak boats to take the tourists out to the whales, while others said the Zodiaks seriously disrupted the whales, and wanted the tourist industry to develop more slowly, using quieter boats. These groups had different levels of access to knowledge and to power, and different economic interests, Neves-Graca noted.

“I looked at how people actually learn about ecology by facing ecological dilemmas,” she noted, and observed that both sides learned from each other.

“Although the motivation to write these regulations was economic, the situation promoted increased learning about ecology as a by-product.”

Neves-Graca said her study contributed to a debate that has been raging in the social sciences for the last three decades over whether humans inevitably act on the basis of self-interest until, in the absence of restrictions, they extract so much from their environment that they eventually deplete all resources.

Neves-Graca said her study demonstrates such behaviour is not an inevitable part of human nature, although this outcome can occur if people are not sensitive to their environment, or if they don’t develop local mechanisms to limit the demands on resources.

“You can change the dynamic by educating people” she said, adding she is interested in identifying the conditions that change the dynamics so that people shift into more sustainable relationships.

Neves-Graca was able to apply her varied background to her study. Her undergraduate degree, which she obtained in Portugal, is in international relations, her MA from the University of Western Ontario is in symbolic anthropology, and her PhD from York University is in social anthropology. In 2001 she was hired as a visiting assistant professor at the Institute für Ethnologie, University of Heidelberg.

Now that she has happily settled back in Canada and into her new job at Concordia, she is planning her next research project. Neves-Graca said she hopes to study whale-watching in Nova Scotia, where collapsing economic resources are forcing people to learn about ecology in order to create a more sustainable economy, and compare that with the situation in rural Quebec, where people are trying to save their family farms by switching to organic farming methods.