Are marine protected areas and priority areas for conservation representative of humpback whale breeding habitats in the western South Atlantic?
The establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) is an important component of conservation strategies for large marine vertebrates. Thus, quantitative evaluations are necessary to assess whether their habitats are protected by these areas. In this study, the representativeness of government-established MPAs and identified priority areas for conservation (PACs) relative to the Brazilian wintering habitat of humpback whales was assessed using satellite telemetry data (n = 74 individuals). Argos-derived location data were filtered and modeled using a switching state space model (SSSM) and overlaid on shapefiles for MPAs and PACs. Humpback whales occurred in only 18.31% of the 71 MPAs observed within the species range. A lower frequency of locations was recorder inside rather than outside these areas. MPAs of Integral Protection used by humpback whales correspond to only 0.64% of the species wintering habitat. In contrast, a total of 40% of the 55 PACs observed within the same area was occupied by the whales, with a higher frequency of locations documented inside the PACs. Our results suggest that PACs encompass the species habitat in a more representative manner than MPAs. Because the former do not provide legal protection, they do not effectively contribute to the species conservation. We suggest PACs used by the species, especially Abrolhos Bank PAC, can be used as basis to refine conservation efforts of humpback whales in their breeding grounds in light of increased anthropogenic stressors. We also demonstrate that animal movement data obtained from satellite telemetry studies are useful for assessing the representativeness of MPAs and to improve management of whales.