A new agreement between sister sanctuaries in Massachusetts and the Dutch Lesser Antilles strives to protect endangered humpback whales.

Do you have a favorite vacation spot? So do humpback whales — and a sister sanctuaries new agreement helps ensure protection for their habitats. Humpback whales are long-distance migrants but highly faithful to specific feeding and breeding areas. Long-term research shows that individuals spend the summer and fall in the rich feeding grounds of NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In late fall, they migrate some 1,500 miles south to the Caribbean’s warmer waters. Here they mate and give birth to their young.

A new sister sanctuary agreement between NOAA and the Netherlands expands a network of protected areas from New England to the Caribbean Sea. This network provides refuge for approximately 1,000 North Atlantic humpback whales at both ends of their 3,000-mile annual migration. The agreement between Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary of the Caribbean Netherlands in the Dutch Lesser Antilles provides for joint whale research, monitoring, education, and conservation.

“This agreement has the potential to improve our scientific knowledge and enhance our management capabilities of these two special places,” says John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

A humpback whale breaches in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. (Image credit: NOAA)

Sister sanctuaries protect humpbacks

The nearly 9,000-square-mile Yarari Sanctuary joins sanctuaries off the Dominican Republic, French Antilles and Bermuda in the sister sanctuary network established by NOAA in 2007. The agency created the network to help protect whales when they leave Stellwagen Bank and migrate to Caribbean breeding grounds. The network now encompasses 257,000 square miles in the western North Atlantic Ocean. This includes the 842 square miles that Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary protects.

“The sister sanctuary network, with the Yarari Sanctuary as its newest member, uniquely links both eastern and western Atlantic humpback whale populations in the Caribbean, along with conservation efforts in Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States,” says Paul Hoetjes, policy coordinator for Caribbean Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Scientists confirmed the link between northern feeding grounds and breeding/calving grounds in the Caribbean Sea in 1992 and 1993. Researchers from seven countries worked together on a project called the Years of the North Atlantic Humpbacks (YoNAH) to conduct a unique study of North Atlantic humpback whales across their entire ocean range. Using photo identification and biopsy sampling, YoNAH provided a detailed picture of whales’ abundance, population structure, and migratory movements.

Tracking North Atlantic humpbacks

Another international study in 2004 and 2005, More North Atlantic Humpbacks (MONAH), focused on photographing and sampling humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine and on Silver Bank off the Dominican Republic to provide updated information. Scientists concluded that humpbacks are loyal to their northern feeding grounds, yet mix with other groups of humpback whales in their tropical breeding grounds. Scientists think gene mixing from different feeding populations contributes to humpback whale resilience.

Commercial whale watching is an important industry at Stellwagen and in the Caribbean. But humpback whales migrating from the tropics to colder waters, especially in the western Atlantic Ocean, face many threats. Major ports line the Atlantic coastline, with heavy ship traffic passing in an east-west direction over the north-south whale path. The Caribbean and western Atlantic also are heavily fished. Fixed gear, nets, and traps anchored or placed on the seafloor are dangerous to a feeding or migrating whale.

Sister sanctuaries mean cooperation

The sister sanctuaries program exemplifies the importance of marine mammal protected areas worldwide and is partially supported by the Marine Mammal Action Plan for the Wider Caribbean Region under the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and WildlifeSPAW Protocol).

“Cooperation is central to our goals and to the implementation of the regional Marine Mammal Action Plan for the Caribbean,” says Monica Borobia-Hill, United Nations Environment Programme officer. “We welcome this agreement. It will open new opportunities for collaboration in activities of mutual interest on humpback whales and other marine mammals, as appropriate, as well as their respective habitats.”

Dr. Nathalie Ward is the sister sanctuaries coordinator at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries thinks the relationship will be crucial to future protection of the North Atlantic humpback whale population, she says. It will also help develop further cooperative agreements with additional nations.

“The sister sanctuary relationship champions cooperation and promotes ecological connections between marine protected areas for the benefit of their inhabitants,” Ward says.

“The program kindles commitment to critical habitats, ignites community engagement, and manifests the true spirit of regional cooperation, which is a key element to ensure effective management for biodiversity protection and the conservation of migratory marine mammal species.”

Guest post by Vernon Smith, national media coordinator, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

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