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Friday, February 03, 2006

Whale barf is
puzzling for officials

Ambergris made the news last week when an Australian couple found a 32-pound chunk of it on a remote beach of that country's south coast.

NPR's news program "All Thing Considered" ran the story with the headline, "Australian couple hits the jackpot." The BBC headlined its story, "Whale vomit sparks cash bonanza." And Australia's national news agency, the AAP, proclaimed, "Product of whale intestine could be worth $1 million."

One report says ambergris, prized among perfume makers, can be worth up to $90 per gram.

Now here's the rub: Trade in ambergris is illegal.

CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) forbids trade for commercial purposes in products derived from species listed on Appendix I. And sperm whales, the sole producers of ambergris, are listed.

So what's all this hoopla about finding a fortune in a block of ambergris? Well, trade in ambergris might be illegal technically, but in reality it's bought and sold all over the world.

This is no guarded secret. On the Web it's easy to find perfume-makers who will pay big money for ambergris. An American perfumer e-mailed me, "It is entirely possible to find genuine ambergris on the beaches of Hawaii. ... It can be like winning the lottery."

A lot of people think buying and selling ambergris is OK because it's a gastrointestinal product that forms around indigestible squid beaks, sort of a whale hairball. When the mass gets big, the animal throws it up.

(In the past, I incorrectly wrote that whales defecate ambergris. Not so. They vomit it, apparently in one loud retch.)

This whale barf, as one Australian news agency so delicately puts it, has wildlife officials in a quandary.

On one hand, the worldwide ban on endangered species trade is justified, effective and needs to be strictly enforced.

On the other, even CITES has trouble clarifying a ban on vomit. At a Brussels meeting in 2005, a CITES committee agreed that "in principle, urine, feces and ambergris were not covered by council regulation 338/97 (regarding animal trade) unless there was evidence of manipulation."

Also significant is the fact that whalers of the past found ambergris in the digestive tract of only a tiny number of sperm whales. The numbers I found ranged from 1-in-100 to 1-in-1,000. To kill sperm whales for their ambergris would be a ludicrous business proposition.

A wildlife watchdog agency called Cropwatch has had no success in getting a statement on U.S. law about ambergris from any regulatory agency, marine scientist or university. I had a similar experience: Wildlife law enforcement officials here didn't return my call.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Web site, however, states "it is illegal to possess, buy or sell ambergris in the U.S."

Do we Hawaii beachcombers need to worry about this? How likely is it we'll find ambergris on our beaches? If we do, how would we know it? And what should a good citizen do with it then?

I'll tell you next week.



Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,