Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 4 - October 2007

Sister Sanctuaries
to Protect Endangered Humpback Whales
at Both Ends of Migration

By Dr. Nathalie Ward, CSI Board

A humpback whale, named "Salt," makes a 3000-mile round-trip journey each year - swimming from the colder waters of the North Atlantic to the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. To protect Salt and her offspring on both ends of their migration, the United States and the Dominican Republic and have joined hands to form a special relationship - a Sister Sanctuary.

Salt's tail

Salt was first seen in New England waters in the mid-1970s. She is a great-grandmother! Over the past thirty years, she has escorted 10 calves from the mating and calving grounds in the Dominican Republic back to Stellwagen Bank feeding grounds.
(Photo Credit: Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.)

Dominican Republic and the United States
Partner in Historic Conservation Effort

The Dominican Republic's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established the world's first sister sanctuary linkage protecting an endangered migratory marine mammal species on both ends of its range (December 2006). The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) off the coast of Massachusetts, and the Santuario de Mamíferos Marinos de la República Dominicana (SMMRD), two marine protected areas 1,500 miles apart, provide critical support for the same humpback whale population of around 900 whales. These humpbacks are resident at SBNMS and adjacent waters' feeding grounds from April through December and migrate to low latitudes, including the waters off the Dominican Republic, to mate and calve.

The SBNMS (in the Gulf of Maine - GoM) is one of the most intensively used cetacean habitats in the northeast continental shelf region of the United States. Of special note, the data set for humpback whales in the SBNMS is the longest and most detailed study of baleen whales in the world. Matrilineal studies show evidence of four generations (1975-2006) of humpback use of, as well as inter-generational site fidelity to, the sanctuary as a feeding and nursery area. The Dominican Republic is the first Caribbean nation to establish a marine mammal sanctuary in the Wider Caribbean region. Within SMMRD, Silver Bank, represents the densest concentration of humpbacks found in the North Atlantic with up to 3000 humpback whales present at one time.

Regional Significance in the Caribbean - Relevance to SPAW

During the past two decades, awareness of marine mammals and their habitats in the Wider Caribbean Region (WCR) has increased. Because marine mammals are transboundary animals, successful conservation of marine mammals in the WCR will ultimately depend upon the commitment of countries there to build and maintain, with international assistance, internal capacities for setting conservation priorities and achieving high standards of population and habitat protection.

One of the goals of UNEP's Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol is to develop specific regional and national management plans for endangered, threatened or vulnerable species in support of national biodiversity conservation efforts. In order to achieve this, Parties of SPAW developed a draft Marine Mammal Action Plan (MMAP) for the Wider Caribbean Region (WCR) in 2005. (See UNEP web site: http://www.cep.unep.org/pubs/meetingreports/MMAP/mmap.php). This framework of activities has been developed in order to assist governments in the region with their efforts to develop and improve marine mammal conservation practices and policies. In order to accomplish these objectives, the draft MMAP specifically requests the following:

"...design marine protected areas and other management regimes that maintain ecological connections between MPAs in order to satisfy species' requirements, including "sister sanctuary" relationships that promote protection for transboundary assets."

This type of initiative manifests the true spirit of regional cooperation, which is a key element to ensure the conservation of migratory, endangered species.

Partners in Conservation

As sister sanctuaries, the two sites will explore new avenues for collaborative management efforts, including joint research, monitoring, education and capacity building programs. This past summer both sanctuaries teamed to establish the Sister Sanctuary Internship Program, supported in part by CSI. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch hosted Dominican Republic interns for a two-month period to provide specialized training in education and scientific research. With the success of the 2007 intern program, we hope to be joined by additional partners in 2008 - the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the Whale Center of New England.

For transboundary species such as the endangered humpback whale, sister sanctuaries can serve as stepping stones for protection throughout an ocean basin. The sister sanctuary relationship has the potential to improve our scientific knowledge, enhance our management ability and increase the sanctuary's mission of biodiversity conservation - benefits that extend far beyond the sanctuaries involved. In sum, our ability to protect humpback whales will be determined by understanding the mosaic of interactions, including the pervasive historical, geographic, biological, chemical, and human factors, which influence their abundance and distribution. Although the human activities that affect these animals are unlikely to stop, we can think about what we do, and make choices about an integrated regional-scale approach to research, outreach and policy strategy within an environmentally relevant and socially responsible framework.

Relevant Web Sites

Dominican Minister of Environment: http://www.medioambiente.gov.do

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: http://stellwagen.noaa.gov

NOAA: http://www.noaa.gov

NOAA National Ocean Service: http://www.oceanservice.noaa.gov

National Marine Sanctuary Program: http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov

Dr. Nathalie Ward, External Affairs Coordinator for SBNMS, negotiated the sister sanctuary MOU. Since 1990, she has served as marine mammal consultant for UNEP/SPAW and its draft Marine Mammal Action Plan. She divides her time as a marine biologist and marine mammal educator between Bequia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Woods Hole, Massachusetts. For additional information about the sister sanctuary relationship, please contact: Nathalie.Ward@noaa.gov.


Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale breaching. Whale watching is a major ecotourism industry in both the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic. (Photo credit: NOAA.)

View of humpback whale migration route

View of humpback whale migration route between Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) and the Santuaria de Mamiferos Marinos de la Republica Dominicana (SMMRD). SBNMS encompasses 842 square miles of ocean, stretching between Cape Ann and Cape Cod offshore of Massachusetts. SMMRD protects marine mammals within its 19,438 square-mile area. (Photo credit NOAA.)

A humpback whale on Silver Bank

A humpback whale lifting its 15-foot flippers in a giant salute on Silver Bank, a 900 square nautical mile reef, which is located some 50 miles (80 km) north of the Dominican coast. Part of SMMRD, a unique feature of Silver Bank, or Banco de la Plata, is a large wreck of the freighter, Polyxeni, which ran aground in 1982 (seen in the background). (Photo Credit: Jooke Robbins, NMFS/MONAH Project.)

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