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Creating safe places for whales and dolphins to live

From Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs),  if we want to save whales, dolphins and porpoises, we have to protect their habitat.

The label “marine protected area”, or MPA, is a catchall term describing sanctuaries, marine national parks, special areas of conservation, and so forth, each of which has designated rules and levels of effectiveness and enforcement, depending on the location and  the reason the MPA was set up.

Good MPAs are able to accommodate regulated human activity  at a modest level, while focusing on long-term nature protection. It’s a real challenge. To meet it, MPA managers use a technique called adaptive management, learning and adjusting as they go.

An important and visionary type of MPA is a marine reserve offering a high level of protection without any commercial fishing or other development activities. A marine reserve is sometimes called a “no take” area. Such protection is good stewardship of the ocean and keeps ecosystems intact without human interference. It has also led to increased fish stocks both within and outside a reserve.

Marine Protected Areas

  • First MPA created in 1972 in Mexico.
  • c. 20,000 MPAs worldwide (5% of the ocean but only 1% of high seas).
  • Only 600 protect whale and dolphin habitat.
  • In 2010 the world’s countries agreed 10 percent of the ocean’s surface should be protected by 2020, but WDC and others agree the minimal level should be 30%.

How can marine protected areas help wide-ranging whales?

The ideal MPA provides protection for the most important areas of whale and dolphin habitat—where a population might feed, breed, socialise and raise their calves. To achieve this level of protection substantial areas are linked together into an MPA network. For example, in the North Atlantic, the humpback feeding areas around Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the northeast United States is linked to the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic and the Agoa Sanctuary around the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Such “sister sanctuaries” provide protection for humpback whales, and foster the exchange of scientific and management information about the population, as well as furthering public education. Often, however, only fragments of a whale population’s habitat can be protected. Even so, that protection serves as a valuable starting point for the eventual creation of MPA networks.

The concept of MPAs is only a few decades old, and most of those for cetaceans have been created in the past decade. Some 600 areas protect important whale, dolphin and porpoise habitat out of a total of 20,000 MPAs in the world ocean for all marine species and habitats. The 20,000 MPAs cover more than 5 percent of the surface of the ocean. Most of these MPAs have yet to be fully implemented and only a small percentage provide high levels of protection in ‘no-take’ areas. At the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan, the world’s countries agreed that 10 percent of the ocean’s surface should be protected by 2020, but many scientific and conservation bodies agree that the minimal level of protection should be at least 30 percent. The biggest gap is on the high seas, the international waters that make up more than half of the ocean, where less than 1 percent has been protected.

Time-consuming and costly to set up, manage and monitor, MPAs are only one tool in the toolbox of conservation solutions. Management plans require engagement from the entire stakeholder community, and management bodies are then needed to implement the plans. Other tools include the re-routing of ships to avoid ship strike and reduce noise levels in areas of known whale abundance, and the banning of set or gillnets in areas where cetaceans are accidentally killed in nets—so called “bycatch.”

The first whale MPA

The first whale MPA was declared by Mexico in 1972 for gray whales. The location was the winter breeding grounds of Laguna Ojo de Liebre, also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, in Baja California. In the mid-1800s, Charles Scammon and other whalers had killed as many gray whales as they could, and some thought the species extinct. Protection of this lagoon and neighboring San Ignacio Lagoon helped launch whale conservation efforts in Mexico.

In 1988, the three main lagoons and the surrounding land and sea areas were turned into El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. The developing tourism industry in the lagoons linked local residents to the whales and gave residents a stake in the whales’ future. Gray whales breed and raise their calves in Baja, migrating to Alaska in the summer months to feed. No longer considered endangered, their numbers have hovered around 22,000 since 2000.

Humpback whale breaching

What are IMMAs?

A new conservation tool called Important Marine Mammal Areas, or IMMAs, is being used to identify the habitats of whales and dolphins and other marine mammals across the breadth of the ocean and to lay down the best science and expert analysis showing the location of areas that they need for their survival.

IMMAs are being developed by the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, in partnership with WDC, International Committee on Marine Mammal Protected Areas, and Tethys Research Institute. This work will lead to many more protected area proposals as well as be useful for marine spatial planning, by identifying areas where whales need protection because they are getting hit by ships or being caught accidentally in nets from bycatch or where ship or other noise may interrupt their ability to feed, socialize, rest or breed. IMMAs will be a check on how well or how poorly we are protecting whales, dolphins and porpoises. They will also provide baseline-monitoring information in specific areas useful for evaluating climate change in the future.

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