Whale Protections Proposed for Strait of Gibraltar

MONACO, March 5, 2007 (ENS) - A new proposal to protect the waterway that separates Europe from Africa for some of the world’s most threatened whales and dolphins will be considered later this year by the 20 governments that have signed an agreement to conserve the heavily trafficked marine region.

The Strait of Gibraltar and the adjacent Alboran Sea would be protected under proposals being formally recommended to the 20 country parties to the Agreement on the Conservation of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area, ACCOBAMS, at the meeting of the parties in Croatia in October.

Areas used by fin, sperm, Cuvier’s beaked and killer whales as well as bottlenose and common dolphins and harbor porpoises for feeding, breeding and rearing young are proposed for protection from encroaching industry and pollution.

"These proposals are based on solid science and are some of the most far reaching and significant to be recommended in European waters," says Erich Hoyt, a senior research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, WDCS, based in England.


Pilot whales play off the coast of Tarifa, the southernmost point of Spain. (Photo courtesy tarifa-kitesurf-apartments.com)
"They aim both to protect critical marine ecosystems as well as to reduce persistent threats to the whales and dolphins and the species and habitats they depend on," said Hoyt.

Hoyt helped organize a scientific workshop on protected areas for cetaeans last November in Monaco that examined and put forward the proposals through the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS.

One of the proposals would protect the Strait of Sicily - an area frequented by fin whales and a range of dolphin species off Italy, Malta and Tunisia and on the high seas.

Other proposals would safeguard eight areas for common dolphins in the Mediterranean - five in Greece, and two in Italy - as well as the Amvrakikos Gulf of northwest Greece where about 150 bottlenose dolphins live in a semi-enclosed area that the WDCS says could function as a natural laboratory for research.

In addition, the ACCOBAMS governments will consider protecting two areas important for Black Sea dolphins and harbor porpoises.

The largest area proposed for protection is about 25,000 square kilometers than encompasses the entire Alboran Sea and Straits of Gibraltar with substantial portions of the national waters of Spain and Morocco as well as the adjacent high seas.

The area highlighted for protection in the Alboran Sea and Strait of Gibraltar is being proposed in a number of Special Areas of Conservation and Ocean Reserves, as well as an international Special Area of Mediterranean Interest under the Barcelona Convention, whose signatories include most Mediterranean countries.

This region is the most productive and diverse area in the Mediterranean and features 10 of the Mediterranean’s whale and dolphin species in high numbers.

The first aerial census of cetaceans off the coast of Andalucia, Spain was carried out by the regional government last June. It revealed the presence of large species such as sperm whales, some Cuvier's beaked whales and a large number of small dolphins.

Yet the area is under intense pressure from fishing, including illegal driftnet fishing, as well as shipping traffic, and maritime pollution.

About 14 kilometers (nine miles) wide at its narrowest point, the Strait of Gibraltar is the entry and exit point between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by the continents of Africa and Europe, and the countries of Morocco, Spain, the British colony of Gibraltar, and the Spanish exclave of Ceuta.

The cetaceans must navigate around some 90,000 vessels that transit the Strait of Gibraltar each year.


Two of many ships lie at anchor in the Bay of Gibraltar. March 5, 2007. (Photo courtesy Port of Gibraltar)
The crossroads of world trade, the Port of Gibraltar is the largest bunkering port in the Mediterranean, supplying all grades of marine fuel by barge to vessels anchored in Gibraltar Bay. Frequent spills are inevitable.

The latest spill occurred three weeks ago when the Sierra Nava, a refrigerator ship from Panama, ran aground outside Gibraltar on January 28, spilling fuel oil over four kilometers (2.5 miles) of protected coastline within the Estrecho National Park.

Environmentalists are advocating urgent action to stop pollution from ships passing through the Strait of Gibraltar after six long-finned pilot whales from the Strait's resident population have washed up on beaches in southern Spain over the past three months.

"They were all well-fed adults and there was no apparent reason for their deaths," Renaud de Stephanis, president of Conservation, Information and Research on Cetaceans, told the "Telegraph" in February.

"Pilot whales are very sensitive to any type of contamination and we fear that marine pollution caused by oil spills is to blame," said de Stephanis, calling for immediate action to stop the pollution.

The global conservation organization WWF is proposing better surveillance and "exemplary measures" to stop new incidents.

WWF is pleased with a major advance for whale conservation in the Alboran Sea announced February 28.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco has signed an agreement that will help phase out the use of driftnets in Moroccan waters, which are known to cause the accidental death or injury of many marine species, including whales and around 3,600 dolphins and 23,000 sharks per year in the southwestern part of the Mediterranean Sea alone.

Under the new EU-Morocco Fisheries Partnership Agreement, 119 European vessels, mostly Spanish, will be allowed to fish in Moroccan waters in exchange for an annual €36 million compensation package.

A portion of this compensation, as requested by WWF, will fund the phasing out of Morocco’s driftnet fleet, the largest of its kind in the Mediterranean.

“This agreement is a major step forward in making fishing methods more sustainable in the Mediterranean,” said Dr. Sergi Tudela, head of fisheries at WWF Mediterranean.

“We have been crying out for driftnets to be banned in the Mediterranean for years, so this concrete development is most welcome.”

Stretching up to 14 kilometers in length, driftnets are fishing nets that drift with the tide or current buoyed by floats or attached to a boat.

Though illegal, driftnets are still widely used across the Mediterranean. A recent WWF study showed that at least 177 fishing boats were illegally using driftnets in the Alboran Sea between Morocco and Spain to target swordfish.

Also announced this week is the official launch of a new online resource for marine protected areas called cetaceanhabitat.org, sponsored by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Visitors to the site will find news on recent sanctuaries and marine protected areas, MPAs, links to and descriptions of regional and world treaties on cetaceans and protected areas; definitions of key MPA terms such as critical habitat and ecosystem-based management; detailed references and downloads; and excerpts from Erich Hoyt’s book Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises,

"We’re hoping this will be a grassroots information tool that helps promote the creation of the best possible MPAs worldwide, in line with regional and international targets," says Hoyt, who helped develop the site. "But our key message is that for MPAs to be successful for cetaceans and ecosystems, cetacean threats have to be addressed in comprehensive ecosystem-based management plans with generous, highly protected zones containing critical habitat areas."