COFFS HARBOUR whale watch operator Peter Bruce says an entire industry would be severely affected, should Japan get the go ahead to hunt humpback whales.

"Over the past 30 years or so, we've gained the trust of these magnificent animals, to the point where they come right up to the boats with their calves," the skipper of Spirit of Coffs Harbour said.

"We're very fortunate to be able to board a boat and look at these magnificent animals. To see them so close, it's amazing.

"But this whole industry is built on trust and if we start bumping them off, we'll lose that trust.

"Whales are not stupid animals. They have a very good memory. So if they start getting harpooned, they're not going to forget. They won't come near us and it'll have a devastating impact on the whole industry."

This could have far-reaching effects on the Coffs Coast economy, which relies heavily on tourism. "Any possible loss of any tourism activity would have a direct impact on the economy of the Coffs Coast," a Coffs Harbour City Council spokesperson said.

"It's not just my little boat, the whale-watching industry is a multi-million dollar industry. It provides an income for many many Australian families," Mr Bruce said.

In fact, a 2004 International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) report found that the whale-watching industry contributes almost $300 million to the Australian economy.

The report ? From Whalers to Whale Watcher ? found that Australian whale- watching enterprises have grown from 42 boats taking 140,000 tourists whale watching in 1993 to 290 boats carrying more than 1.6 million tourists in 2003.

Mr Bruce says in his 18 years in the cetacean watching industry he has seen a real difference, not only in behaviour, but also in numbers.

"These animals were hunted to near decimation, but their numbers have grown in strength. They've been steadily increasing and have been getting used to us being around," Mr Bruce said.

"I'm not judging Japan. They needed to eat whale meat after World War II to survive, but there's no longer any need to eat them.

"I think it's a small minority of Japanese people of the old school that market whale meat to make money, because it's a rare item.

"But I get lots of Japanese tourists on my boat and they're themselves astounded by what they see.

"Those animals are migratory and they're ours as much as theirs. The difference being that what we do doesn't harm them and won't compromise them being there in the future."

To Mr Bruce, the Federal Government's diplomatic approach isn't sufficient.

"The government must realise whales are a magnificent creature that contributes greatly to the Australian economy. They're not a disposable item," he said.

"The problem is the Government doesn't see it as a major issue in the realm of things. But if we don't do something about it now, it will become one."

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