Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit has announced that Dominica is creating the world’s first offshore marine protected area sperm whale nursery.
Dominica voted against the continuation of commercial whaling at the International Whaling Commission in 2010 at a time when US President Obama favored allowing Japan, Norway, and Iceland to resume commercial whaling, which had been illegal for 20 years.
Obama’s administration argues that the new deal would actually save thousands of whales over the next decade by stopping the three countries from illegally exploiting loopholes in the moratorium.
Almost 800 square kilometers of waters on the western side of Dominica that are key nursing and feeding grounds for young whales have been designated as a sperm-whale reserve, the government announced Monday.
Sperm whales have the largest brains on earth, matrilineal societies, and a complex language. They are the largest-toothed predator on our planet, with males on average 16 meters (52 ft) long – bigger than a school bus.
Sperm whales are found in waters worldwide – from Iceland to New Zealand. But Dominica is one of the few countries in the world where sperm whales can be seen consistently throughout the year. Dominica offers a unique habitat where a resident population of sperm whales finds food and shelter, making the west coast of the island critical feeding and nursing grounds.
“We want to ensure these majestic and highly intelligent animals are safe from harm and continue keeping our waters and our climate healthy,” Skerrit said in a statement seen by some publications, but not published on Dominica’s GIS.
“Protecting these whales offers an incredible, cost-effective climate solution that has been overlooked by policymakers,” said Enric Sala, the founder of Pristine Seas and an Explorer in Residence at National Geographic.
“By protecting sperm whales, Dominica is bolstering its climate resilience. The more sperm whales in Dominica’s waters, the more carbon sequestered in the deep sea, thus helping to mitigate global warming.” Sala has been advising the government of Dominica on the establishment of the reserve.
Whale feces are particularly climate-friendly. Sperm whales dive between 650-1000 meters deep to hunt squid. When they are at the surface between dives, they breathe, rest and defecate. Their nutrient-rich feces – with iron concentrations 10 million times greater than the surrounding water at the surface – foster plankton blooms which capture carbon dioxide from seawater. When the plankton dies, it sinks to the deep sea with the carbon in it, thus becoming a carbon sink and helping to mitigate the impacts of global warming.
In waters around Dominica and elsewhere, sperm whales have been hit by ships, entangled in fishing gear and affected by agricultural runoff, limiting their survival. In the pre-whaling days, an estimated 2 million sperm whales roamed the Earth’s deep waters before they were hunted for oil used to burn lamps and lubricate machinery. Now, some 800,000 are left, Gero said.
The government of Dominica said the reserve will allow sustainable artisanal fishing and delineate an international shipping lane to avoid more deaths of sperm whales, which have the largest brain in the world and can grow up to 50 feet (15 meters).
Once the reserve is created, the prime minister said his administration will appoint an Chief Whale Officer and observers to ensure the area is respected and that whale tourism regulations are enforced. Visitors can still swim with sperm whales and see them from a boat, but in limited numbers.
The move was praised by scientists and conservationists including Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic.
“The government of Dominica has realized that the sperm whales, which were probably here before humans, are also citizens of Dominica,” he said. “These whales will spend most of the year offshore the island. So, they are taking care of some of their citizens in a way that few nations have ever done before.”
The Reserve will cover less than three percent of Dominica’s waters, which offers enough protection for the sperm whales.
Restricting ships to only use designated corridors has been proven to not only reduce the risk of ship strikes and noise in an area sperm whales use for feeding and nursing, but it also reduces the risk of fishing gear being broken by large ships, which in turn protects the whales from entanglement and reduces replacement costs to fishers.
“Dominica has the opportunity to show the world how to reconcile marine conservation with responsible use of the sea. A well-designed and regulated whale tourism operation can bring in economic revenue to offset the direct costs of managing and enforcing the reserve – and bring additional benefits to Dominica’s people,” said Kristin Rechberger, the CEO of Dynamic Planet, which advised Dominica on the economic aspects of the reserve.
“With a proper conservation business plan, protecting nature is achievable by all countries, large and small.”
An estimated 35 families of sperm whales spend most of their time in waters surrounding Dominica and they communicate via clicking sounds in a vocalization known as codas.
Researchers also have given individual whales names. One is dubbed “Snow and another sperm whale was nicknamed “Fruit Salad” because a researcher happened to be snacking on that at the time. That whale’s calf was named “Soursop,” in keeping with the theme.
Sources: National Geographic, AP, Dominica GIS.