Further Ambergris Update.
More on Ambergris: Bioethics & Traders Excuses.
Copyright Tony Burfield January 2006
Australian newspapers reported (late Jan 2006) on the finding at the beginning of January of a 14.75Kg lump of ambergris on a S. Australian beach (Streaky Bay) by Leon & Loralee Wright, which some papers said could be worth $1 million AUD - although the New Zealand Herald valued it more conservatively at $295,000. The story was quickly given even wider coverage by the world press, the journalists apparently dazzled by gold fever. We were informed, variously, that ambergris trading did not present a threat to the whale and was perfectly legal, that companies in France were able to process the material to perfumery grade ambergris, but that sale to the US was illegal.
The Australian Situation
In fact trading in both Australia and the US is unlawful. Wildlife Trade Australia (firstname.lastname@example.org) had previously mailed Cropwatch on 03.11.2005, intimating that for Australia:
Ambergris is sourced from Sperm Whales which are listed on Appendix I of CITES. CITES specifically excludes trade for commercial purposes in parts or products derived from the wild for species listed on Appendix I. The full list of CITES appendices can be viewed at http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/trade-use/lists/cites/index.html .
It should be noted that CITES and the EPBC Act regulate the international trade in wild life.
That seems clear enough, so presumably Leon Wright and his wife will be unable to legally sell the ambergris.
The USA Situation.
In the US the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 consolidated protection for the Sperm whale and its products that were specifically protected in 1970. The Act was passed to protect whales which were slaughtered not only for whalemeat and spermaceti, but also for ambergris and at the time of passing the Act in the US 96% of traded ambergris came from sperm whales and only 4% from shore wash-ups. The website at http://www.rsmas.miami.edu/support/lib/seas/seasQA/QAs/a/ambergris.html sstates:
"Ambergris, a secretion of the sperm whale intestine, is regarded as a marine mammal product by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Possession of it is prohibited by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which includes the sperm whale, declared an endangered species on June 2, 1970. The Act states that it is unlawful to possess, sell, deliver, carry, transport, or ship by any means whatsoever any parts or products of an endangered species taken within the United States. This means that, although ambergris is valuable as a fixative in the manufacture of fine perfumes, perfumers in the United States are not allowed to buy or sell it or perfumes containing it. They now use a synthetic substitute. Beachcombers who find ambergris should report it to the nearest state or federal conservation agency. One should keep in mind, however, that pieces of wax, rubber, plastic, or other materials, may, at first glance, be mistaken for ambergris which is opaque and ash-colored. Interesting historical facts about the uses and value of ambergris are presented in "Ambergris - Neptune's Treasure," Sea Frontiers, 4(4): 201-209, November 1958 and "Ambergris - Floating Gold of the Sea," Surveyo7; May 1981."
Other affirmations of the illegal status of ambergris trading can readily be found on the Internet: "Today its illegal to possess, buy or sell ambergris in the United States." - see - http://www.mbayaq.org/efc/living_species/default.asp?hOri=0&hab=8&inhab=191
"Included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) since 1985, making trade in products (i.e. sperm oil, teeth, and ambergris) illegal in most countries. Since 1981, importation of sperm oil and other sperm whale products has been banned by the European Union. Importation of marine mammal products in the U.S. has been banned since 1972 (Whitehead 2003)." see: http://aknhp.uaa.alaska.edu/zoology/species_ADFG/status_reports/ADFG_PDFs/Mammals/sperm_whale_ADFG_web_060205.pdf
Whilst no reputable international perfumery company will now deal in animalics, others unfortunately will. Further, many in natural perfumery interest groups in the US see no ethical objection to using ambergris, and maintain that anyway, the law is not enforced, and so they are free to use the commodity. They also conveniently ignore the argument that the creation of a demand for this commodity will inevitably mean that unscrupulous hunters will kill more whales.
Cropwatch asked staff at the Iona State University about the ethical status of ambergris usage by small perfumery concerns, and whether the lack of enforcement of the EPA law gave them carte blanche in this matter. Kristen Hessler, Bioethics Outreach Officer mailed this comment on 05.12.2005, based on the information volunteered:
I find this argument ethically problematic. I assume that they mean that they are ethically free to use ambergris (as opposed to legally free to do so, which would require a lawyer's opinion). The Endangered Species Act is intended to protect an important public good -- the survival of currently endangered species -- so the ethical obligation to obey the law should not be taken to depend on whether the law is actually enforced. In any case, I'm not sure it's true that no part of the ESA is enforced, so part of this argument is (I believe) resting on a false premise.
In spite of a number of attempts, Cropwatch has had no success in obtaining a statement on the US law relating to ambergris trading from any US Regulatory authority including the EPA, marine scientists and several other University departments - it seems that they do not wish to be drawn on this matter. We may have made the question too difficult for them, since we included this further quandary regarding the CITES regulations:
We have been pointed to the 33rd Meeting of CITES Brussels 3rd Mar 2005 (Note 14 of Reg 1497/2003) which says: "the committee agreed on an understanding that in principle, urine, faeces and ambergris were not covered by Council Regulation 338/97 unless there was evidence of 'manipulation' ". We are trying to find out what the term 'manipulation' means - we can see that 'manipulation' might apply to (the collection of) other odiferous animal products i.e. the scraping the glands of civet cats to produce civet etc.
We are still in the dark over this, but it seems we might not be alone!
Further references on ambergris.
Gorbachov M. Yu & Rossiter K.J. (1999) A new electronic topological investigation of the relationship between chemical structure and ambergris odour, Chem . 24, 171-178.
Thaha S.A., Islam M.W. & Ageel A.M. (1995) Effect of ambrein, a major constituent on masculine sexual behaviour in rats. Arch. Int. Pharmacodyn Ther. 329(