Blue whales protected in the largest Marine Park in continental Chile

By Francisco Viddi and Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete

The Chilean government has recently approved the declaration of the Tic Toc Marine Park, located on Chile’s southern coast, off the Northern Patagonian Fjords.  This marine park, in the waters of Corcovado Gulf, will protect of one of the most pristine marine ecosystems in the southern hemisphere.  With an area of 90,000 ha, Tic-Toc will be the largest marine protected area in continental Chile.

Blue Whale surfacing in the new Tic Toc marine park in Chile. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Huck-Gaete

Research conducted over the last ten years has demonstrated the importance of this area: it hosts one of the largest populations of blue whales in the southern hemisphere, is home to the endemic Chilean dolphin, and is a nesting ground for many bird species including a newly described species of petrel.  Other cetaceans that are fairly common in the area and will also benefit from the additional protection the park provides include humpback, sei, minke and killer whales, Peale´s, dusky and bottlenose dolphins, and Burmeister´s porpoises. Many fish species of commercial importance breed within the park and coldwater corals are present.

Beautiful scenery in the new Tic Toc marine park in Chile. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Huck-Gaete

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Announcement of the Creation of the Marine Mammal Protected Area Task Force

by Erich Hoyt and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

25 October 2013

The creation of the IUCN Joint SSC/WCPA Marine Mammal Protected Area Task Force (MMPATF) was formally announced on 24 October 2013 by Dan Laffoley, World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara on behalf of the Species Survival Commission (SSC), and Naomi McIntosh, International Committee on Marine Mammal Protected Areas (ICMMPA). The MMPATF objectives and further activities were described by the Task Force co-chairs, Erich Hoyt and Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara.

Following two global conferences (Hawaii, 2009; and Martinique, 2011) hosted by the ICMMPA, the Task Force was developed through the WCPA, the SSC and the ICMMPA to give a stronger voice to marine mammal needs within IUCN and to serve the larger marine mammal protected area community of practice.

Objectives of the new Task Force include:
a) facilitating mechanisms by which this community of practice can collaborate, share information and experience, access and disseminate knowledge and tools for establishing, monitoring, and managing marine mammal protected areas (MMPA) and promote effective spatial solutions and best practices for marine mammal conservation;
b) bolstering capacity within the MMPA community by exposing it to state-of-the-art tools from the wider MPA and place-based conservation world;
c) enabling the implementation of global MPA targets and agreements; and
d) enhancing opportunities for cooperation, communication, exposure of related products and expertise to a far wider audience.

Task Force products and activities will likely include: publications, guidelines, best-practice guidance (e.g., in the Protected Planet series); consolidation and coordination of the global community of practice; outreach (conference presentations, workshops, website, social networks); application of new technologies (e.g., Google tools); provision of information on activities to WCPA Marine and to SSC, and for protected area news in and outside of IUCN, as appropriate, on a regular basis; supporting pursuance of WCPA, SSC and IUCN goals where appropriate; and supporting relevant resolution drafting and World Park Congress planning and participation.

The Task Force’s first initiative consists in the development of Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), a working term we have devised to describe discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. IMMAs can be seen as a potential ‘marine mammal layer’ which represent a pre-selection for consideration by governments, conservation groups, and the general public of areas that deserve consideration for space-based protection. In addition, by linking IMMAs to the larger world of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (CBD EBSAs), IUCN Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), and Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) work, we hope to accelerate the process of habitat protection for marine mammals and the ecosystems that support them. The networking of IMMAs could represent a cost-effective approach to conservation. They can help supply the basis for future MPAs, MPA networks, marine spatial planning and support marine biodiversity conservation in general through marine mammal flagship, umbrella and indicator properties.

In order to identify and propose IMMAs, a set of criteria must be developed that are simple and flexible to allow use in different countries and geographic areas. Criteria must be science-based and applicable to all main marine mammal taxa, and be able to account for the major ecological and biological differences that exist among marine mammals. To achieve this goal, the MMPATF organised on 22 October 2013 in Marseille a workshop dedicated to the selection of IMMA criteria, with the participation of specialists familiar with the main marine mammal taxa, as well as those working in the CBD EBSA and IUCN KBA arenas, and those who have worked on devising the original criteria descriptions for these approaches. This workshopfunded by the Animal Welfare Institute and The Pacific Life Foundation, with the help of The Ocean Foundation and Whale and Dolphin Conservation confirmed the importance of establishing IMMAs specifically and KBAs generally as lists of potential sites for the designation of EBSAs in the marine environment as endorsed by the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. A working group, set up from this workshop, will now work to finalize the criteria and determine next steps for its testing and implementation.

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Concern over use of dolphins for bait in shark fisheries

The release last week of a newspaper article and accompanying video footage of dolphins in Peru being harpooned by fishermen and the flesh used as bait in the shark fishery has received considerable international attention<http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2465575/Dolphins-killed-bait-catch-endangered-sharks-Peru.html>.

The CSG has evidence that in addition to Peru, dolphins are, or have been, used as shark bait in a variety of other countries and regions, including East Africa and South America, and it is probable that the killing of dolphins, as a perceived free source of bait, is on the increase, driven by the lucrative shark fin trade.

At present very little information is available on the prevalence of this activity, but as many cetacean populations are small, with restricted distributions, and are already under pressure from other human activities, these directed takes are very likely to be unsustainable.  It is important that efforts are made to investigate the Peru story further, and to better understand and quantify this threat to dolphins in Peru and elsewhere.

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A 2008 whale mass stranding in Madagascar linked to sonar mapping for the first time

An alien environment for a deep diving species. Photographer: Tim Collins

In 2008, approximately 100 melon-headed whales stranded in the Loza Lagoon system in Madagascar. The response effort was multi-faceted and included local people, government officials, conservation organisations and marine mammal experts. A significant amount of information was collected and, several years later, the International Whaling Commission facilitated a review of the circumstances of the stranding in conjunction with the US Marine Mammal Commission, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, ExxonMobil Exploration and Production (Northern Madagascar) Ltd, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Government of Madagascar. An independent scientific review panel (ISRP) of five experts was invited to conduct a formal examination of the available facts.

Capturing a whale in a mangrove channel. Photographer: Yvette Razafindrakoto

The ISRP concluded that the mass stranding was primarily triggered by acoustic stimuli, more specifically, a multi-­beam echosounder system operated by a survey vessel contracted by ExxonMobil Exploration and Production (Northern Madagascar) Limited. According to the final report, this is the first known marine mammal mass stranding event of this nature to be closely associated with high‐frequency mapping sonar systems. Based on these findings, there is cause for concern over the impact of noise on marine mammals as these high‐frequency mapping sonar systems are used by various stakeholders including the hydrocarbon industry, military, and research vessels used by other industries.

Initial strandings at Antsohihy were the subjects of huge fascination, and were brought into town for inspection by the local government veterinarian. Photographer: Unknown local resident

Links to the report, which became available on 25th September 2013 and the associated material considered by them can be found at http://iwc.int/2008-mass-stranding-in-madagascar

Click Here for the full press release issued by WCS and IFAW.

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First gray whale seen in the southern hemisphere

Written by Dr Simon Elwen, of the Namibian Dolphin Project
http://namibiandolphinproject.blogspot.co.uk/

On the 4th of May 2013, marine tour operators working in Walvis Bay, Namibia, reported an ‘odd looking whale, possibly a gray whale’ to local researchers running the Namibian Dolphin Project (NDP). A few years ago, the presence of a North Pacific gray whale in the South Atlantic would have been dismissed out of hand, but the sightings in 2010 of a gray whale in the Mediterranean has changed ideas of what is possible. Analysis of photographs were conclusive, and confirmed that the animal was indeed a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). This is the first confirmed record of the species from the Southern Hemisphere that we know of and certainly the first in the South Atlantic.

Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) sighted in Walvis Bay, Namibia in 2013

A skin sample has been collected from the Namibian animal. We have no way of knowing the route followed by the whale to get to Namibia, but it seems most probable that it came via the North Atlantic, having arrived there via either the Northwest Passage across North America or the Northeast Passage across Eurasia. Climate change and specifically the reduction in ice coverage in the Arctic is making sightings such as this one less improbable.

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Yangtze finless porpoise is listed as Critically Endangered

The Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis), the world’s only freshwater porpoise, has been upgraded to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This follows the recent probable extinction of the other cetacean once found in China’s Yangtze River system, the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer). The change in threat status (it was previously classified as EN) is based on analysis of data for 279 stranded porpoises collected from the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River from 1978 onwards, which reveal that the porpoise population is experiencing an accelerating decline, and predict a further population decline of >80% within three generations.

Recent survey results from late 2012 suggest that the porpoise population in the main Yangtze channel has almost halved since the previous survey in 2006, with initial estimates suggesting that there are now only around 500 individuals left in the mainstem compared to over 1,100 six years earlier. The primary drivers of this decline are still not clear because of the range of harmful anthropogenic factors operating in the Yangtze ecosystem, although ship collisions, by-catch in legal and illegal fishing gears, reduction of fish prey base, habitat degradation, and the effects of pollutants are all likely to play a role.

To read the full assessment on the Redlist, click here

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IWC/CPPS/Ecuador Training Workshop for Responding to Large Whale Entanglement Events

Large whale disentanglement workshop underway in Ecuador

This regional training workshop was carried out in Salinas, Ecuador, 27-28 June 2013. The entanglement of large whales in small scale gillnets has been identified as a major conservation issue in some countries of the Southeast Pacific, particularly in the cases of humpback and sperm whales. The workshop was conducted in the framework of the International Whaling Commission capacity building program for responding to large whale entanglement events, which is offered to its Member Countries.

Large whale disentanglement workshop underway in Ecuador

The event was jointly organized by the IWC Secretariat, the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific (CPPS) and the Government of Ecuador as host country.  The event was also supported by the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Conservation International-Ecuador (CI). IWC technical advisors David Mattila and Ed Lyman from NOAA were in charge of the 2-day training which included a day of practice at sea. Participants included government officers in charge of marine biodiversity management (fisheries and environment), researchers and marine mammal stranding responders from Ecuador (25) Chile (3), Colombia (3), Panama (3) and Peru (3). As part of the collaboration, IWC donated two tool kits to Ecuadorian environment authorities. It is expected that this type of training will foster networking and setting up of specialized response teams in the region. Additional information from the event can be obtained from IWC and CPPS (Spanish) web sites.

Submitted by Fernando Félix and David Mattila.

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Mexican government approves selective fishing gear to reduce Vaquita bycatch

On the 6th June 2013 the Government of Mexico took an important step to save the vaquita.  The Mexican ‘Official Norm’ establishes shrimp fishing standards in Mexico and defines which gear is permitted in different zones of the country. The Government has adopted important modifications to the Norm which will require the progressive substitution of shrimp drift gillnets, one of the main fishing gears in which vaquitas die incidentally, with more selective gear that does not kill porpoises. The Mexican government ordered a three-year, gradual substitution of drift gillnets for the new selective net RS.INP.MX (30% the first year, 30% the second and 40% the third). The RS.INP.MX selective net was developed and tested by the National Fisheries Institute (INAPESCA) of the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA), in collaboration with the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP) of the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and civil society organizations including WWF. Support came from the Alianza WWF-Fundación Carlos Slim, the Marisla Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the International Whaling Commission.

The RS.INP.MX (acronym for “Selective Net of the National Fisheries Institute-Mexico”) is a small driftnet adapted for use with small vessels (6 meter fiberglass “pangas” with four-stroke gasoline outboard engines) that has a number of features that make it more selective than the gillnets, including a turtle excluder device, a “Fisheye” type fish excluder to exclude smaller-sized species and a double headline or lower line with rollers to reduce damage to the seabed. It is composed of lighter materials to reduce fuel consumption and minimize seabed damage. Mesh size decreases progressively along the net to avoid capturing non-target species. The net has hydrodynamic trawl doors to reduce resistance and increase efficiency, and its smaller dimensions mean it can be deployed from artisanal fishing vessels (“pangas”).

The Norm can only be applied effectively if there is participation and commitment from local fishermen. Also, optimal use of the new light trawls requires particular skills; therefore, the support of the government and other organizations through training and temporary compensation programs will be essential.

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Why are so many whales dying in Argentine Patagonia?

Press Release Issued on 25 April 2013, by the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program. Contact: Mariano Sironi – msironi(a)icb.org.ar; Max Pulsinelli – mpulsinelli(a)wcs.org

The southern right whales that use Península Valdés, Argentina as a nursery ground have suffered the largest mortality event ever recorded for the species in the world. At least 605 right whales have died along the Argentine coast since 2003, including 538 newborn calves. One hundred and thirteen calves died in 2012 alone. The Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program is working with scientists worldwide to determine why the whales are dying, but as yet, a common cause remains to be found.

Every winter and spring, the calm bays off Península Valdés, a World Heritage Site on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, Argentina, are filled with southern right whales which come to give birth and raise their calves. However, in recent years these remote beaches are also filled with dead whale calves. In 2008 alone, almost one hundred whales, 89 of them calves, died at Península Valdés and in surrounding areas. 2012 was a record-breaking season, with 116 whale deaths, 113 of them calves.

The difficulty of identifying the cause of this die-off has been a challenge for the researchers studying the whales at Península Valdés. Marcela Uhart, Co-Director of the Program and a Veterinarian formerly with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Denise McAloose, the lead pathologist of the Program and also the Head of Pathology for the Wildlife Conservation Society, have not been able to determine the cause despite extensive investigations. They say that “though we collect hundreds of tissue samples to test for a variety of infectious, toxic and other diseases, to date we’ve been unable to pin down the cause of these deaths. Every year breaks previous existing patterns in terms of numbers of dead whales, time of the season of highest mortalities, location of stranded whales, etc. The only fact that remains dauntingly constant is that the majority of deaths occur in newborn calves.”

“In 2012 we lost nearly one third of all calves born at the Peninsula. Southern right whales have their first calf when they are nine years old on average,” explains Dr. Mariano Sironi, Scientific Director of the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina and Advisor to the Program. “This means that it won’t be until a decade from now that we will see a significant reduction in the number of calves born, as all of the female calves that died will not be contributing any new offspring to the population.”

Vicky Rowntree, Co-Director of the Program, Director of Ocean Alliance’s 43-year study of the southern right whales of Península Valdés and a research professor at the University of Utah, is concerned about the reduction in population growth rate. “The southern right-whale population is still only a small fraction of its original size, and now we have reason to worry about its recovery. Our long-term data indicate that the Península Valdés whales were increasing steadily at close to 7% per year until recently. Elevated calf mortality is reducing that growth rate substantially (by nearly a third in one estimate). If this continues, we just don’t know what will happen.”

The International Whaling Commission is the global intergovernmental body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. In 2010, the Commission organized a workshop in Puerto Madryn, Argentina to analyze the right whale die-offs at Península Valdés. Based on discussions of existing evidence, experts from around the world concluded that the three most likely causes of mortality could include malnutrition, infectious disease and biotoxins.

Last week, scientific experts met at a workshop during the 44th Annual Conference of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM) in Sausalito, California, to analyze the new findings of this puzzling whale die-off. Dr. Peter Thomas, of the US Marine Mammal Commission and Chair of the Workshop, said that “until recently, the Valdés right whale population was considered to be healthy and growing at a steady rate after being depleted by whaling in past centuries. However, in view of the many years of high mortality, it seems that the Península Valdés whales and their western South Atlantic ecosystem may be less fit and resilient than previously thought.”

Discussions at the workshop also focused on a very unusual biological phenomenon. At Península Valdés, kelp gulls land on the backs of southern right whales to eat their skin and blubber. Rowntree and Sironi have studied the frequency of gull attacks every year since 1995. “The attacks are very painful and cause large, deep lesions, particularly on the backs of young 2-6 week-old calves. The whales flinch violently and swim away to flee from the attacking gulls”, the researchers explain. “This harassment can last for hours at a time. As a result, right whale mothers and their calves are expending much precious energy during a time-of-year when mothers are fasting and at a site where little to no food is available to replenish fat reserves. The gull harassment and the extensive wounds they make must have a very negative effect on the health and body condition of these whales and is certainly very stressful”.

Determining the cause of the calf mortality at Península Valdés is urgent for this population and in light of the critical status of other right whale populations in the northern hemisphere whose total numbers are about equal to the number of whales that have died at Península Valdés since 2003. “The current mortality of southern right whales at Península Valdés is unparalleled at a global scale. No other right whale population is losing so many calves each season”, says Dr. Frances Gulland, Senior Scientist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and Host of the IAAAM Meeting. “The populations of their northern sister species in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic are both ‘endangered’ and the more closely related southern right whale population off the coast of Chile and Peru is ‘critically endangered.’ Should these populations encounter this same crisis, they could go extinct.”

The past seven years of consistently high mortality of right whales at Península Valdés cannot be ignored. It is of critical importance to continue current research and monitoring efforts to find out why so many right whale calves are dying, and what we can do about it.

About the Program

The Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program was established in 2003 to document drivers of disease and mortality for the southern right whales that come to Península Valdés, Argentina to breed. It is run by a consortium of the non-governmental organizations Wildlife Conservation Society, Whale Conservation Institute/Ocean Alliance, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and Fundación Patagonia Natural. It began operating with support from the US National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Marine Mammal Commission, and runs with funds from foundations, private donors and the NGOs that lead the Program.

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New Presidential Commission to Save Vaquita Takes First Steps

The first meetings of the Comisión Asesora de la Presidencia de México para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (Advisory Commission of the Presidency of Mexico for the Recovery of the Vaquita) were held in Mexico City in February and March of this year, and significant actions are under way.  Ing. Juan José Guerra Abud, Secretario de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, formed the 17-member Commission to expedite actions to save Mexico’s porpoise.  The Secretary brought together the heads of government departments, the chairs of Congressional natural resource committees, representatives of the states of Sonora and Baja California, representatives of fishery unions, the Mexican Navy, non-governmental organizations and private foundations, and scientists to step up action on meeting what he describes as Mexico’s moral obligation to save the species.

At its first meeting, the Commission identified three actions for immediate implementation: (1) publication of the NOM (official standard) that will make the use of small-type trawls instead of gillnets mandatory in the shrimp fishery; (2) much more effective enforcement of existing regulations; and (3) commitment of financial resources to compensate fishermen for lost income as a result of vaquita protection measures.  The NOM was published for public comment on schedule in February, and this sets the stage for large-scale gear changes before next fall’s shrimp season.  A small working group was established to develop the economic plan immediately.

Formation of the Commission was timely given recent indications that protection efforts to date have been insufficient to stop the vaquita population’s decline – there are now estimated to be fewer than 200 individuals. The International Recovery Team (CIRVA) noted at its last meeting (February 2012) that although Mexico has made real progress towards saving the species, the Vaquita Refuge has only slowed, and not stopped or reversed, the decline. Not only is the Refuge too small, but enforcement of a partial ban of gillnets has proven infeasible. The good news, however, is that a breakthrough has been made in the development of alternative fishing gear that should not kill vaquitas but will allow shrimp fishing to continue.

Small trawls that can be pulled from the artisanal fishing boats (pangas) have been tested by Mexico’s fisheries agency. These trawls are equipped with turtle and fish excluder devices and use a ‘tickler’ chain to reduce bottom-fish bycatch. The trawls are effective for catching shrimp and are being tested for catching commercial finfish. Conversion will require training and gear replacement and it is anticipated that fishermen will need compensation to maintain their income.  At the second meeting a proposal to further test the new gear involving more fishermen in August 2013 was adopted.

The Minister also decided on a new vaquita abundance estimation survey to be conducted as soon as possible.  This survey will repeat the design of the survey in 2008 and could be conducted as early as fall 2013.

Progress will be closely monitored by numerous groups, some of which (e.g. IUCN, Society for Conservation Biology, and Society for Marine Mammalogy) have written letters to commend Mexico for actions taken and to plead for further quick and critical actions. Representatives of the CSG and SMM who are on the new Commission are optimistic that Mexico’s new Administration is serious and prepared to commit the necessary resources for timely and appropriate efforts to prevent the vaquita’s extinction. Stay tuned.

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