Marine mammals are among the most fascinating creatures we could think of, and yet, despite love and fascination, our activities are the main threat to their survival and wellbeing.
Wait a sec. Things we (human beings) do normally, usually, on daily basis can harm marine mammals?
A few examples.
Unsustainable fisheries lead to depletion of fish stocks, and this limits the amount of fish or seafood available to us, but also to predators such as dolphin and seals. Empty seas can no longer sustain the food requests of marine mammal populations with negative consequences on their health and wellbeing.
Also, beside taking out prey, fishing gears don’t have the ability to discriminate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ catch and often nets return onboard with undesired turtles, seals, sea lions, dolphins caught unintentionally. Nonetheless, caught.
In the big blue open sea, what are the chances that dolphins accidentally end up in a net and die? It can’t be that many, can it? Well, the number varies greatly according to the area and the type of fishery, sure, but just a figure: purse-seine tuna fishery in the Eastern Tropical Pacific is responsible for an estimated 6 million dolphin deaths since its inception the 1950s. 6 million. Shocking, isn’t it? This is one of the most dramatic cases (read more here), but we now know that this is not a threat to face lightheartedly: Vaquita and Maui dolphins are on the edge of extinction mainly because of fisheries and by catch issues.
We have almost fished them all out, it doesn’t matter whether intentionally or not (what matters is that we keep on fishing them out! Insane).
Seismic exploration, underwater drilling, military exercises employ underwater sounds that result harmful to dolphins and whales. Unbearable noises permeate the waters and can be heard for miles, the only way to escape the noise is to reach for the surface: a rapid ascent (which might leave the animals temporary or permanently impaired), or a stranding.
Tourism operations, chemical pollution, solid waste, ship traffic, intentional captures, among others, are daily widespread threats we tend to underestimate.
Basically, marine mammals leave in a big blue minefield in which the ‘traps’ we disseminate overlap with other traps and/or other natural conditions and have unpredictable effects on animals’ distribution, abundance and wellbeing.
Solution: create safe ‘trap-free’ (or ‘low-trap’) areas. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) aim at pursuing conservation through the proper management of activities within a delimited spatial area.
The process for the establishment of a protected area is a mixture of science and politics. It requires certification of the area ecological value, proper reporting to relevant agencies or bodies and framing according to current legislation frameworks. This last step often goes through renowned conservation institutions recognized by governments or conventions signed by member states.
Neat process: identify the area, inform the people who have decisional power, and obtain a law. Done. Of course, it is neither simple nor neat.
Properly designed MPAs reflect the understanding of the past, present and possible future of an area and its human and non-human inhabitants. Also, they integrate knowledge of interactions and relations within and between the various components.
First of all, proper MPA design requires good knowledge of complex ecological features of ecosystems, species and processes occurring in the area and in connection with the area. This knowledge is long and demanding to obtain but it is crucial: it allows evaluation, assessment and predictions about current and possible future status of a species, population, habitat.
Moreover, MPAs have to take into account the local socio-economic, political and governance context: MPAs management limit, cap, control stakeholders operation, thus it is likely to remain hopeful theoretical intervention ‘on paper’ if not shaped in order to be feasible and efficient on ground.
Everything is connected, and an MPA planner needs to know and understand the full picture.
Challenging indeed, especially that part concerning the “human” component. The plan, design and implementation of area-based conservation involve many actors (scientists, legislators, managers, local communities, enforcing agencies, etc.) whose interests are often conflicting and difficult to conciliate.
So, say that we are interested in an area where cetaceans occur and human activities are intense. Setting up an MPA there might protect the animals and contribute to the sustainable use of the resources!
First, how do we know if this can really become an MPA? What features should it have? What tools and expertise should we employ to investigate that? Second, how do we plan its management? How do we maximize the chances that the animals we are trying to protect will actually benefit from the institution of this MPA?
And here it is where organizations such as the International Committee on Marine Mammals Protected Areas (ICMMPA) come in the picture.
Since its establishment in 2006, “ICMMPA has been a unique forum to bring together MPA managers, decision-makers, scientists and other stakeholders to exchange information, strengthen partnerships, and figure out the way forward to improve MPA management and marine mammal conservation in the context of such areas.”
ICMMPA has held its 3rd Conference in Adelaide (Australia) last November. Amina and I were there for this intense 3-day of interesting and articulated presentations and discussions on various case studies with contributes from all over the world.
Be it the context of the Pelagos Sanctuary, the MPA recently established in Bangladesh (amazing work!) or the case of spinner dolphins in the Egyptian Red Sea (oh yeah!), talks have highlighted strengths and challenges encountered, as well as shared tools and perspectives to enhance our (scientists, conservationists, managers, etc.) ability to actually protect the marine environment, and marine mammals in particular, through the definition and establishment of sound conservation initiatives.
The big names, those who lead, organize, plan, decide internationally were there. We (the rookies) had the chance to sit and brainstorm with them on various issues, providing our -small, limited, naive- experience but mainly listening mesmerized.
In particular, this year we were discussing the establishment of a new formal and official classification to identify “Important Marine Mammal Areas” worldwide: what ecological criteria should define them? How should they be incorporated (or not) in existing schemes?
Not a trivial matter. Giuseppe Notarbartolo and Erich Hoyt are co-chairing a dedicated task force, and we look forward to hearing from them about ideas emerged during the conference as they might change the way we will do conservation in the next years.
The world around us is changing, we need to change too. We need to update our strategies and conceptions; we need to better adjust our science to today’s requests and interests; we need to challenge our most rooted believes, to look back at failures, acknowledge them and repair (or substitute) weak links that have caused them. We are losing biodiversity at an outrageously high rate, we cannot afford to continue.
We create the problems and, at the same time, we are the solution, so we can’t help but keep trying our best to mitigate or eliminate our negative impacts.
In the big wide world, as in all condos, we should be held resposible for damage caused to common areas.