Mediterranean Governments miss opportunity to protect threatened beaked whales

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By Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Tethys Research Institute, giuseppe [at]

The Cuvier’s beaked whale, Ziphius cavirostris, is a cetacean particularly vulnerable to the loud noise propagated underwater across the oceans, e.g., by military sonar and by seismic surveys to prospect for oil and gas at sea. When hit by these sounds, for reasons still poorly understood these whales are often lethally hurt; and even when they are too far from the sound source to be injured, the whales are impacted because they may leave an area which contains optimal habitat for them. Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Mediterranean, a threatened population which is separate from the rest of the world’s oceans, have been heavily affected by human-induced underwater noise, due to the frequent naval manoeuvres in a region of high strategic importance, and to the current widespread craze of finding oil or gas in the sea bottom.

To address beaked whale conservation problems caused by these circumstances, the Scientific Committee of the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS) – which I chaired from 2002 to 2010 and which I have been a member of until last week – was requested by the Agreement’s parties to provide indications about the whereabouts of critical habitats of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Mediterranean in order to support appropriate mitigation measures.

To make a very long story short, in a process which lasted seven years a spatial model was developed under the auspices of the Scientific Committee, on the basis of a large database of Cuvier’s beaked whale sightings contributed by a number of scientific organisations (described in Cañadas et al. 2011, presented at the 63rd meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission). Based on the model, areas having high and medium probability of containing Ziphius’ critical habitat were identified, and were surrounded by a safety buffer of 50 nautical miles (= 92.6 km) to allow for the intensity of noise to decay to safer levels before reaching the whales’ critical habitat (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Areas including predicted high and medium density of Cuvier’s beaked whales (red), surrounded by 50 n.m. buffer (yellow), based on a model developed by Cañadas et al. 2011.

The threshold of 50 n.m. was adopted on the basis of a very successful precedent implemented by Spain around the Canary Islands, after a tragic mass stranding of beaked whales occurred there in 2004 as a result of NATO naval manoeuvres. As an added precaution, the locations of 37 atypical beaked whale stranding events (defined as 2 or more whales stranded in the same area within a fixed amount of time), occurred in the Mediterranean from 1963 to 2011 and causing the death of 149 whales, were plotted on a different map, again with a safety buffer of 50 nautical miles (Fig. 2).

Having thus obtained a map of the predicted habitat of Cuvier’s beaked whales, and a map of the atypical mass stranding of these whales, the two maps were combined in Fig. 3, resulting in the subdivision of the Mediterranean Sea into two area types: Areas of Special Concern for Beaked Whales (in yellow), and Areas on Unknown Risk (in grey).

Thus, the Scientific Committee transmitted this last map to the parties to ACCOBAMS, with the recommendations that: a) naval exercises involving the use of loud anti-submarine sonar be avoided in the Areas of Special Concern; b) seismic exploration in the Areas of Special Concern be fully justified with Environmental Impact Assessments, including a report on the lack of alternative locations and an independently evaluated protocol to mitigate impacts; and c) mitigation should always be applied before, during and after activities emitting intense noise sources in Areas of Unknown Risk.

It all seemed quite reasonable, as it was formulated by the Scientific Committee in order to respond to a precise request by the parties, and presented with a constructive attitude to indicate a way forward. The Committee’s intention was to help empowering the Mediterranean societies, which have declared their commitment to protect the region’s cetaceans by ratifying the ACCOBAMS Agreement, to respect such commitment while at the same time assuaging their national security concerns and continuing to search for their coveted submerged oilfields. In its recommendation, the Scientific Committee also noted that although the results were the best that could be attained based on the available knowledge, these could certainly be improved in the future through the collection of more data, particularly in areas of the Mediterranean where beaked whale observations are still scant, and with the benefit of a full and transparent cooperation with all concerned stakeholders in good faith; the military and the oil & gas industry included and welcome, of course.

So, was the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS thanked and patted on the back for its lengthy and constructive efforts?

Not quite.

Fig. 2. Locations of atypical strandings of beaked whales in the Mediterranean surrounded by a 50 n.m. buffer zone.

On 7 November 2013 I was asked to present the recommendation at the 5th Meeting of the Parties of ACCOBAMS in Tangier, Morocco. Unfortunately, I must report that the Scientific Committee’s advice was dismissed by the parties, never mind that they were the ones that requested it in the first place. Due to a veto from France, Greece and Cyprus, on the grounds of safeguarding national security and, ultimately, national sovereignty, the very concept of suggesting place-based conservation of Ziphius cavirostris in the Mediterranean was thwarted. The representative from the Greek Ministry of Defense even went to the extreme of requesting that any reference to a map in the final report of the meeting be deleted, as if a map had never even been discussed. That request having been denied, the map is going to be made available to the public through the report. In compliance with the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which Greece is party to, a copy of the map is also presented here as Fig. 3.

So, three more years will now elapse, and likely many more Cuvier’s beaked whales will be extirpated from their remaining Mediterranean habitat, before the scientific community will have another chance of recommending concrete actions for safeguarding the last of the species in the region.

Ironically, at the same Tangier meeting the parties to ACCOBAMS, by adopting a new strategy for the period 2014-2025, emphasized their vision “that cetacean populations in the ACCOBAMS area will be in favourable conservation status, expressed as healthy populations and habitats with minimized adverse human impacts, with ACCOBAMS having a role of key regional player also in promoting active regional cooperation”.


Fig. 3. Areas of Special Concern for Mediterranean Cuvier’s beaked whales (yellow), and Areas of Unknown Risk (grey), resulting from the combination of Figs. 1 and 2

This blog originally appeared on Wave Action, Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara's Marine Conservation Blog and Website. It has been reposted here with permission by the author.

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