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

Are MPAs the answer? How to make them work.

Some scientists and conservationists involved with cetaceans have dismissed marine protected areas as being unsuitable and ineffective for protecting cetacean habitat. They have multiple objections:

• The size or scale required to protect cetaceans is not covered by conventional protected area models.
• Cetacean habitat needs are too fluid or difficult to define in terms of providing specific, defined habitat protection areas.
• Cetacean MPAs do little more than allow governments the chance to say that they are doing something for conservation when clearly they are not.

Yet more than anything, a marine protected area for cetaceans becomes what stakeholders make of it. Better design and planning in the early stages helps – using ecosystem-based management and ensuring that critical habitats are protected. Of course, there will be limitations of size, legal recourse, and the need to share marine resources. Still, increasingly, MPAs are seen as ‘works in progress’ that have the capacity to improve and change. It is clear that MPAs require the support and leadership of all stakeholders – including scientists and conservationists – to make them work.

A declared MPA signifies a positive intention towards a piece of habitat. It is never an end point. In most cases, real protection requires more than the declaration or the declarer (government agency) ever imagined or intended. That’s how it must be – if protection is ever to endure, adapt and function for the desired purpose. There are now, and will be in future, many other uses for and competing interests in the sea.

An example is El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve (La Reserva de Biosfera El Vizcaíno) in México. The Mitsubishi salt works lobbied the Mexican Government for expansion and was determined to push ahead with development in the gray whale’s ‘protected’ habitat in the lagoons. Perhaps in another time, another country, the development would have proceeded without complaint. Certainly, it would have done so in México had there not been substantial protest. México‘s Grupo de los Cien (the Group of 100), together with international conservation groups and scientists, led a determined effort that eventually paid off when the Mitsubishi Corporation backed off. Today, El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve is much stronger for the threats it has faced and overcome.

El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve has a long history as a meeting place for gray whales and humans – from the whalers who almost made them extinct to the whale watchers and researchers who have presided over their return to their original numbers. It is not an MPA merely on paper. But even a ‘paper MPA’ can be better than no recognition, no MPA at all. Of course, there is the danger that MPAs encourage the public and government to feel that they are doing something for cetaceans and that cetacean habitat problems are being solved, when in many cases they are not. A paper MPA cannot be allowed to block real conservation efforts. Some paper MPAs were created in good faith without recognition that an effective MPA takes time and considerable effort to implement. Part of the problem is the length of time needed for the public process to develop and install a management plan. A paper MPA is at least a starting point. It’s not just worth ‘as little as the paper it’s printed on’; it is something that represents the interest and effort of all the people who want to make the paper mean something, indeed much more even than what it may say.

Thus, the bottom line is that I believe that we must work within the system, as it were, to make protected areas work, as well as, at the same time, to do all the other things we can to assist with conservation: institute better laws; seek to develop networks of protection through international agreements, such as the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS); ensure that the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and other trade laws and conventions are enforced; and promote education regarding cetacean hunting, incidental kills and pollution.

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