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1st Edition of Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

How well do MPAs protect cetacean habitat?

How well do the hundreds of existing MPAs conserve cetacean habitat? The answer is that, in a few limited areas, MPAs are trying to do an important job for cetaceans and cetacean habitat, but by and large, around the world, cetacean habitat, inside and outside protected areas and international sanctuaries, is little recognized, largely undescribed, marginally protected at best and being degraded every day. In some cases, the animals are being killed in conflicts with fisheries, shipping traffic or pollution of one kind or another such that any habitat protection is rendered almost worthless. In few areas is the management responsive to the seasonally changing habitat needs of cetaceans – if they are even known. It is depressing – but at least these MPAs are something to build on.

On the positive side, I see considerable ground for optimism in the numbers of people who are thinking and talking about MPAs for cetaceans. Some of this comes through the growing awareness of the need for more MPAs in general. But perhaps even more of it comes through cetacean tourism. The 10 million or more people a year who go whale watching have built a constituency for cetaceans and MPAs, particularly in the US, Canada, México and a few other countries (see Table). Whale watching occurs in 495 communities and each of these communities has a predictable, accessible population of cetaceans. Even though many of these areas have not been formally identified as cetacean habitat with the suite of studies necessary to confirm this, such predictable cetacean areas are a good indication of future possible cetacean MPA sites. Others, of course, are already MPAs and are using the ‘brand name recognition’ in various positive ways such as: Stellwagen Bank, New England; Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California; and Silver Bank Humpback Whale Sanctuary, which was re-named Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic in 1996.

Table: Top dozen whale watching countries and their MPAs with cetaceans

Country Whale
(land + sea)
proposed for
1 USA 4,316,537 90 18 3 1
2 Canada 1,075,304 78 9 12 3
3 Canary Islands 1,000,000 5 12 1 0
4 Australia 734,962 46 38 9 2
5 South Africa 510,000 20 18 3 1
6 New Zealand 230,000 30 2 3 1
7 Ireland 177,600 5 0 8 0
8 Brazil 167,107 14 16 1 0
9 UK 121,125 12 0 6 0
10 México 108,206 14 5 1 0
11 Japan 102,785 23 2 0 0
12 Argentina 84,164 9 17 0 2

Sources: Hoyt (2001, 2005a). MPAs do not include national or international cetacean sanctuaries, or MPAs found in overseas island territories belonging to each country. Data for 2003 from the Canary Islands shows 500,000 whale watchers due to stricter controls and permits since the reported number in Hoyt (2001).

One of the most valuable ways for a marine protected area to earn money including foreign exchange is through sustainable tourism (Hoyt, 2005b). In MPAs with cetaceans, whale watching has the power to bring significant revenues into nearby communities. Of course, whale or dolphin watching is successful in waters in many areas of the world which are not part of MPAs. But MPAs that feature or include cetaceans have the added attraction or lustre of a protected area designation. It gives the place where the whale watching occurs a name, an identity, a brand, rather than being an ordinary or nameless piece of ocean (IFAW, 1999). The MPA designation becomes a statement of the importance of the area and the whales that live there, as well as a way to sell whale watching and marine tourism. For those who believe that sustainable tourism is an important part of conserving marine ecosystems, MPAs provide a powerful, convincing method for marketing the marine environment.

Of course, not every part of every MPA should necessarily be open to tourism. Using the biosphere reserve model, or multi-zone approach, protected areas are commonly divided into various zones which include highly protected core areas, mixed zones allowing tourism and light use, and transition zones with more extensive use and development. Yet managing such areas can be complex. As with any MPA, managers cannot simply erect a fence around it. MPA practitioners must remain open to new management approaches and procedures, as well as scientific findings, as they arise.

In the four-volume series A Global Representative System of Marine Protected Areas, the most common refrain, region by region, country by country, is that management programmes are lacking (Kelleher et al 1995). Since this series was written, awareness of the need for management plans – prepared through a public stakeholder process – has grown, yet, worldwide, most MPAs still require improved management to fulfil their mandates. This comment is also true of MPAs with cetaceans. Besides more and better management, the overall feeling among cetacean scientists is that MPAs that would include cetaceans need more research, improved design, better protection and generally increased size in order to serve the often complex, wide-ranging needs of cetaceans. Some areas do address cetacean needs effectively but these are in the minority. At least, today, there is a growing realization of the importance of protecting cetacean habitat.

In Chapter 3 of Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (Hoyt, 2005a), I have recommended a strategy for protecting cetacean habitat, presenting a step-by-step plan for making a good cetacean-based MPA. Some of the details, of course, will vary from place to place but this will provide specific goals to strive for. The key to the process will be determining the critical habitat needs of each population of each species, and ensuring overall ecosystem-based management.

Still, to the question of how well MPAs can ultimately protect cetacean habitat, there is no definitive answer. We are just learning the basics about most of the 84 species of cetaceans and their specific habitat needs. Certainly, postage-stamp size MPAs are not and will never be the answer for conserving cetaceans. And echoing concerns from various authors (Notarbartolo di Sciara and Birkun, 2002; Reeves, 2001), I agree that even large, well-designed and managed MPA networks will not be enough by themselves.

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