Page last updated at 16:12 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 17:12 UK

Saving the seas for marine mammals

Erich Hoyt
Erich Hoyt

As the world marks the first UN Oceans Day, marine scientist Erich Hoyt says too little of the oceans has been set aside to protect marine life. In this week's Green Room, he explains why vast protected areas are needed to ensure the long term survival of marine mammals such as whales and dolphins.

A humpback whale jumps off Okinawa, Japan, March 2008
If we can make homes for whales and dolphins, the ocean may just have a chance

Where do whales live? In the sea, of course; but the sea is ever changing.

We know that sperm whales search for squid in the dark canyons off the continental shelf.

We know that other whales and dolphins feed along massive seasonal upwellings fuelled by plankton explosions that attract vast schools of fish, which in turn attract seabirds, sharks and turtles, too.

We know that whales travel from feeding areas near the Arctic and Antarctic to warm equatorial regions where they breed and raise their calves.

So where precisely do whales live?

Well, this is the starting point for marine habitat-related research on whales and dolphins. We are still in the process of determining the fine points based on ocean depth, slope, temperature, currents and other factors; but we are learning.

And the more we learn, the more we realise how important it is to know where everything lives and how it functions in the dynamic environment of the sea; not just whales and dolphins but all marine life.

Habitats for a lifetime

Since the 1960s' save-the-whale movement started in California, we have made some progress reversing the momentum toward extinction that came from centuries of whaling.

Whalemeat on market stall. Image: BBC
Despite global campaigns, whale meat is still sold in a number of nations

There are still great threats to whales and dolphins as some countries continue to go whaling and dolphin hunting.

Hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins are killed every year as bycatch and as a result of becoming tangled in fishing gear.

Also, overfishing has damaged ecosystems and food chains; the escalating noise in the sea from shipping, military sonar and hydrocarbon exploration has invaded their habitats.

On top of all this, there is the silent kill from chemical pollution and the effects of climate change.

Meanwhile, oil, gas and mining industries have their sights set on the vast ocean seabed.

If the lessons of intensification during the previous century show us anything, it is that we need to make a place in the sea for marine life.

We cannot save the whales unless we save their habitat.

Thinking big

International agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have set a looming deadline of 2012 to create a network of worldwide marine protection areas (MPAs) in national waters and on the high seas.

Butterfly fish (Image: JE Maragos)

Most countries have agreed to these targets yet few are on track to reach them. In the UK, the parliaments in Westminster and Edinburgh are currently considering new marine bills that will determine the future extent of efforts to protect the sea around the British Isles.

Compared to land-based protected areas, which cover an estimated 12% of the world's continents and islands, protection of the sea stands at only 0.65%, with highly protected areas limited to just 0.08%.

Countries such as Australia, the US, and Kiribati are currently leading the world in marine protection, even if they too clearly have a long way to go in terms of full implementation.

Better understanding

Whales and dolphins have colonised many marine habitats, and have intricate relationships with many other species.

With so many species and habitats, how can we uncover the key places where whales live, the critical areas needing protection?

The past 35 years of research tell us that the same whales are returning to the same places to feed, mate, give birth, raise their calves and socialise.

Mothers have calves and then travel with them, introducing them to their favourite spots, corresponding to ideal depths, water temperatures, currents and other conditions for nursing, resting, finding prey, and so forth.

Dead dolphins on an Australian beach (Image: AP)
If marine mammals are turning up on beaches or dying in nets, then these events should be warning flags for the whole ecosystem

This is the concept of site fidelity. How do we know this? Individuals within the various species of whales and dolphins can be distinguished by nicks or other markings on their fins and tails, or by pigmentation differences revealed by sharp photographs.

Thus, the animals can be named and distinguished, and therefore identified when re-sighted. These re-sightings have helped us reveal site fidelity as well as abundance, crucial to telling us that one area is more important than another.

To protect these favourite places we must establish legally binding MPAs. We must create management bodies and plans, and ensure there are provisions for enforcement and monitoring.

MPAs must be much larger than land-based protected areas because of the fluid nature of the ocean and the mobile nature of its inhabitants; in some areas we may need flexible or moveable boundaries with seasonal components.

To help advance the creation of MPAs, we devised the idea of "homes for whales and dolphins".

The great bonus is that by focusing on "homes" or safe havens for whales, we can protect much more.

Whales and dolphins are umbrella species. The size of habitats needed for their protection, including consideration of MPA networks across ocean basins, will give assistance to many other species as well.

The goal, if not yet the practice, of most marine conservation revolves around the concept of ecosystem based management; so theoretically, entire ecosystems could be protected.

Whales and dolphins are sentinel species. If they are present and healthy, there is a good chance that the entire ecosystem is healthy.

Many cetaceans are among the apex predator species first to go from an area if things are not right, so if we can protect whales and dolphins, we know we are on the right road.

If marine mammals are turning up on beaches or dying in nets, then these events should be warning flags for the whole ecosystem.

The lines are being drawn in the sea. Now more than ever we need a bold vision - big, ocean-wide networks of highly-protected areas.

Fifty years from now, we will see the present day as the time when we had a chance; when we made tough choices and either elected to develop the sea, converting it into some vast watery industrial site, or decided to help significant portions of marine nature to stay wild and sustain our planet.

If we can make homes for whales and dolphins, the ocean may just have a chance.

Erich Hoyt is a research fellow and Critical Habitat/MPA Programme lead for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

He is also the author of Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (Earthscan 2005)

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Erich Hoyt? Is too little of the world's oceans protected? Do whales' migration patterns make it too difficult to protect the marine mammals? Is it asking too much to establish marine protection areas over vast areas needed to ensure the long term survival of whales and dolphins?

Our thanks to the BBC for allowing an expert witness like Erich Hoyt to lay out the growing need for marine animal protection. His detailed explanations and deep concerns, moderately stated, help alert all of us to press our governments to undertake initiatives in this vital area. As humans we all love our oceans but are not well informed on what goes on within them. The more we learn, from the BBC and caring custodians like Mr. Hoyt, the better our prospects of preserving our wonderful planet and its encircling seas.
Douglas Leiterman, Campbellville, Canada

The establishment of a network of marine protected areas is essential to ensure that our seas do not become lifeless bodies of water. The whole marine ecosystem requires protecting in such areas, so there must be strong management plans in place to correctly balance the needs of the various marine species against man's seemingly endless desire to strip the fish from the sea. The tiny "no take zone" off the island of Lundy shows what can be achieved - an area that has an abundance of marine life now protected from any fishing. However compare this to the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (partly established in order to protect the resident bottlenose dolphins) which is suffering decimation of the sea bed and the sea life that depends upon it, due to large scale scallop dredging being carried out (all quite legally, although causing major concern even in the Welsh Assembly). Would it not be an opportune time with the forthcoming meeting of environment ministers for the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, for countries to get together to address the issue of creating marine protected areas; an issue that will become even more important with the effects that climate change will have on our seas?
Lesley Frampton, Fareham, Hampshire, UK

We do have to treat our oceans with more respect, otherwise we won't have a Sylvia Earle said, the children of today are our last chance to teach what the oceans are all about...the time is NOW. See what we are going through here in Brazil with bomb fishing at
Carlos, Gabi e Mel, Cacha-Pregos- Bahia-Brazil

For those of us in the UK, we can 'act local' andd support local community initiatives to establish such reserves. Last year the Arran community, an island off the Scottish coast, successfully petitioned the establishment of a no-take zone in Lamlash Bay after 10 years of hard work. One year later and efforts to bring it to fruition have ground to a halt as government has dragged its feet - no signs nor boundaries have been put up. Trawlers have seen recently entering the area at night. It was hoped that the establishment of the no-take zones would replenish stocks of fish and scallops after some species have all been disappeared. Britain has its own potential Newfoundland on its doorstep.
Carolyn, Londong England

I entirely agree. More MPA's are needed and they have to be large enough to safeguard essential habitat and migration corridors. And they should be well managed with strict and enforced regulations.
Sigrid Lüber, Waedenswil - Zurich / Switzerland

The make up of the sea is like the content of our body. When we forget to protect the life in the sea we cut the bond that brought us to be.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

There are too many people on the planet. That's the only problem we have.
The Trutherizer, Cape Town, South Africa

Erich Hoyt has highlighted a very important point. Creating and implementing proper 'marine protection areas' are significant step in protecting marine life in national waters as well in the high seas. Those who are killing marine life are dependent on marine life for their livelihood. We need to identify and enrol them with some international registration and we need to involve them for the protection of the marine life. With the kind of current technologies we posses for the surveillance, its not that difficult to ascertain right environment for the marine life protection provided you have enough desire to set aside your previous approach and to adopt a 'suitable common agenda'. New jobs may be created to maintain 'marine protection areas'. Substitute food alternatives must be identified. And last but not the least is the check on growing human population is necessary.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

I agree entirely. Marine protected areas can provide a much needed help to whales and dolphins. Even more importantly, protecting whales and dolphins - well-known 'umbrella' species - helps many other species that are part of the same ecosystem.
Giuseppe Notarbartolo-di-Sciara, Tethys Research Institute, Milano, Italy

We fully agree with Erich Hoyt! Asking for marine protection areas is urgently needed for the survival of whales and dolphins. Public awareness must urgently be rised. The public living all along the seas must be better informed. They are not aware of the damage they are causing with throwing their waste into the sea. Owners of vessels, ferries, yachts etc should be shaken awake for not dropping their waste and especially their fuel into the seas. Each one could help!
Katharina Heyer, Tarifa, Spain

Dear BBC Editors: Thanks for printing Mr. Hoyt's thoughtful comment. In many countries, even Canada, we look to your lead in reporting, using scorecards or other measures, to show how countries that sign international conventions live up to their pledges. The marine protected areas are a hopeful approach in our time. Sincerely, Peter Poole
Peter Poole, Banff, Canada

Lately I've read a lot about chemical pollution affecting fish and marine mammals. Why don't we hear more about such effects in humans (like the recent story concerning mutations and cancer in an industrial region of china). Are we (humans) less at risk than sea creatures?
Tom, pagosa springs CO USA

Yes, I do agree with Erich Hoyt. We need to consider carefully what he knows and tells us is needed to save the ocean and the creatures who dwell theren, and then ACT on that information. There is no time to lose. Marine Protected AReas ought to be number one on the list of any consideration concerning the health of the ocean and its inhabitants. What Erich Hoyt is telling us is that the need for ocean habitat for its creatures has never been greater, and the time for us to do something about it is NOW, before it is too late. Thank you for posting this most important piece of information. We need to heed it. Now. DBL
Donna Balkan Litowitz, Miami Beach, Florida, USA

Well said. The time for action is now.
Douglas hoffman, Kihei Hawaii usa

Erich is correct. In fact I would go further. Be it the oceans or terra firma, we humans have no option but to learn to work with the natural world rather than constantly abusing it. The seas are being trashed at an unprecedented rate and we have just a few years to mend our ways. if just one major species is removed or greatly reduced in numbers then that effects the entire system, the environment is to a great degree a homogeneous mass and we are part of that system. This especially applies to the oceans.

I totally agree. if we treated are landscape like the way we treat the ocean, a big rubbish bin! sparadic fighting would brake out in the streets! the more we know about these mammals and their habbits the easyer it will be to protect them. i fully support anything that will aid the survival of the oceans fragile eco system. what can i do to help more?
ian mccaldon, london

Yes, I fully agree with Erich Hoyt's comments. Unfortunately as over-fishing requires fishing vessels to search wider and further than ever, so the impingement on the habitats of the whales and dolpins becomes all the more severe. In addition, there is also the impact of removing some species from the middle of the food hain....The world is shrinking and nowhere is inaccessible any longer, and unfortunately with that comes a price - potential damage to the ecosystems and their inhabitants. We have just last week had 55 False Killer Whales stranded on a beach near Cape Town for no apparent reason - sad to think we are probably responsible for it.
Bruce See, Cape Town, South Africa

It is in all our interests to preserve more ocean areas. This is one of the best ways to safeguard our whales and dolphins, but also to protect dwindling fish stocks. MPAs become popular with the fishing industry once they discover that fish, when allowed to grow larger in MPAs, produce more eggs and thus can help to rebuild stocks. Whales and dolphins face so many threats that interact in unknown ways, so the safest way to help them is to safeguard the whole ecosystem, or those critical areas they need to reproduce and feed. We need to set aside special areas of the ocean NOW--there's not a moment to spare. Well said, Erich.
Lindy Weilgart, Halifax, Canada

Thanks Erich for helping educate everyone on this important aspect! Now let's get everyone to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!! As CEO of MarinePositive, I challenge the BBC to "Go Blue Too" and would like to propose that a "Blue Room" is initiated to discuss the other 1/2 of the environment (issues relative the the oceans, seas, and waters of the world) because it is no longer just about going green!
Susannah Stewart, California

We shall stop, by all means, those new "super-sonar" systems that are used by western navies, if we intend to ensure whales and dolphins survival. And that's only a starter...
Captain Nemo, Neptunia - Atlantic Ocean

The earth is our home,let's take care of it.
Yangtan, Chendu,China

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