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Celebrating a major milestone towards protecting endangered sei whales

Dr Caroline Weir is cetacean project officer for Falklands Conservation, an organisation working to protect the wildlife of the Falkland Islands. They undertake practical conservation projects, surveys and scientific studies, conduct annual monitoring of seabird populations and even rehabilitate oiled seabirds such as penguins.  Dr Weir is responsible for their whale and dolphin research, with special focus on sei whales and southern right whales.

Her trailblazing study has identified important sei whale habitat around the Falkland Islands and as a result this site has been recognised as a Key Biodiversity Area – a first step on the road to getting protection and conservation measures in place for these endangered whales. I asked her to tell us the story, so over to Caroline …

Sei whales
In the Falklands, sei whales are most often seen alone or in small groups of two to four individuals. © Caroline Weir

Sei whales are one of the least studied species of baleen whale. Although they live across the ocean from polar to tropical waters, there are very few global ‘hotspots’ where they can reliably be encountered. Since 1996 sei whales have been classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. This status is largely the result of heavy commercial whaling exploitation during the 1950s to 1970s, particularly in the southern hemisphere where more than 200,000 sei whales were killed over that period.

Since the 1990s, local communities have noticed increasing whale numbers in the coastal waters around the Falkland Islands. This remote archipelago, a UK overseas territory located 500 kilometres off the coast of South America in the south-west Atlantic, has a relatively pristine marine ecosystem supporting diverse wildlife including dolphins, seals, and internationally-important populations of seabirds such as albatross and penguins. In 2017, my organisation, Falklands Conservation, began a study which has confirmed that the majority of whales encountered in the coastal waters around the Islands from January to May are sei whales. This initially came as a surprise to us, since identification guides, whaling records and scientific publications indicate that sei whales are usually encountered in oceanic habitat, in deep waters far from the coast. In contrast, in the Falklands they routinely use shallow coastal waters, inlets and channels, often within a few kilometres of the shoreline. Their presence so close to land has provided a unique opportunity to learn more about the species.

Our whale research has expanded over subsequent years, and is currently funded by a Darwin Plus grant from the UK government. We’re focussed on documenting the distribution, habitat and abundance of whales using small boat surveys, photo-identification (where we take high-quality images of dorsal fins to identify individuals), faecal and genetic sampling (to assess diet and population structure), and acoustic monitoring to better understand seasonality.

Sei whale dorsal fins
Our photo-identification has shown that the dorsal fin shape of sei whales can vary and can have either sharp or rounded tips. © Caroline Weir

Through these combined approaches, we’ve revealed the Falkland Islands to be an exceptional location for sei whales. Early on, we discovered that the whales visit the islands seasonally over the (austral) summer and autumn, and that they use the area primarily as a feeding ground. We’ve photographed the whales surface-feeding on shoals of lobster krill and other small crustaceans, and we’ve sampled many defecations which contain clouds of crustacean body parts. Our photo-identification has shown that many of the same individual whales return in different years, and spend periods of weeks or months feeding around the islands, indicating that the region provides an important and long-term resource for sei whales. We also see sei whale mother-calf pairs, suggesting that there is an abundance of food around for nursing mothers.

Achieving local and international recognition of the significance of the Falkland Islands for endangered sei whales has been a key driver for our research, and is the first step in developing conservation management to safeguard the whales and the places that are important to them.

In 2020, we submitted an application to recognise the coastal waters around the Falkland Islands as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) for sei whales. KBAs are areas of land or ocean that are important to global biodiversity and they are selected using strict scientific criteria. For threatened species such as sei whales, the KBA process assesses where occurrence of a species within a particular area is globally significant and important for maintaining biodiversity and the planet’s overall health. KBAs allow governments, industries, and other stakeholders to understand where areas are of particular conservation value, and to develop and manage their activities in a way that maintains those sites over the long-term. These include, for example, potential impacts on sei whales such as acoustic disturbance from seismic surveys by the oil and gas industry, vessel strikes from shipping, and entanglement risks in fish farms and other fisheries.

Sei whale and shipping Falklands
Some of the areas used by sei whales in the Falklands overlap with the highest densities of shipping activity. © Caroline Weir

Following a scientific review process, I was delighted when the ‘Falkland Islands Inner Shelf Waters KBA’ for sei whales was confirmed at the end of April 2021. The KBA is not only the first to be identified for endangered sei whales anywhere, but is also the first KBA to be accepted for any whale species. Achieving this designation will inform marine management in the Falkland Islands and will help us to advocate for better protection for sei whales to ensure their long-term conservation both around the Falklands and globally.

Map of the KBA

The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.

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About Julia Pix

Communications manager - Public Engagement

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