THE protection of Marine Mammals remains a priority for the United Nations Caribbean Environment Programme (UNCEP), following a recent review of its 2010-2012 programme of work.
At its biannual review meeting held in the Dominican Republic in October, the UNCEP reviewed its existing programmes, including its premier LifeWeb project which focuses on, among other things, long-term planning for marine mammals, such as whales.
The design of a management plan for the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic, worth an estimated US$9 million to that country up to 2008, is among the activities of the LifeWeb project to protect humpback whales and their habitats.
The sanctuary, first designated in 1986, was extended to include Navidad Bank and part of Samana Bay on the Dominica Republic's north coast to protect hump back whale mating, calving and nursery grounds in 1996.
The now 19,430 square miles sanctuary - which has enjoyed a "sister sanctuary" agreement with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary found off the coast of Massachusetts since 2007 - accommodates the densest concentration of humpback whales in the north Atlantic.
Work on the management plan is being undertaken by the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP's) Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) since 2011, courtesy of an agreement with the Fundacion Dominicana de Estudios Marinos (FUNDEMAR) and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
The present population of the hump back whale worldwide is estimated to be no more than 35,000, about a third of the original population. Yet this is one of the marine mammals about which more is known.
Information on the health, numbers, distribution, and movements of individual species is critical if their continued survival is to be successfully managed. Information, which is presented in a way that helps to enhance understanding of their behaviour and migration patterns, is particularly valuable.
It is this which justifies the approach of the more than two-year-old LifeWeb project, launched by UNEP CEP in June 2010 with funding from the Spanish Government. It aims to assist countries to develop and apply cross-sectoral ecosystem approaches to the management of human threats to marine mammals.
The project is also designed to provide an overview of essential habitats and regional-scale movements for marine mammals in need of improved management in the south-east and north-east Pacific and the wider Caribbean and adjacent regions through data integration and GIS-mapping of existing data, including socio-economic information on fisheries, shipping and tourism.
Further, it is introducing integrated planning approaches, including the provision of technical guidance, regional training and learning exchanges on the application of marine spatial planning to trans-boundary governance and management of marine mammals, including the transfer of skills, tools and equitable sharing of marine resource benefits.
The overall goal of the project is to assist implementation of the Convention for Biological Diversity's Programme of Work on Protected Areas through technical support in establishment of comprehensive, effectively managed, and ecologically representative regional systems of marine protected areas by 2012 in the countries of the Latin America and Caribbean and neighbouring regions.
Project partners include the North East Pacific Action Plan, the Caribbean Marine Protected Areas Management Network and Forum, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, French Marine Protected Areas Agency, Dutch Caribbean, GRID-Arendal, Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), national agencies and others. All contribute to produce marine spatial tools which are invaluable for planning.
Support for marine mammal action plans through sub- and inter-regional science-policy dialogues and consultations with stakeholders are also essential aspects of LifeWeb. In addition, integrated planning approaches to the management of marine protected areas have been introduced. Training was provided for the Eastern Caribbean and twinning activities on spatial planning were organised with newly established marine mammal sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, the long-established sanctuary was used to show the potential of broad-scale spatial planning for marine mammal management, including possible generation of revenue through tourism and whale-watching, the aim being to build synergies with Eastern Caribbean initiatives and the Agoa Sanctuary in the French West Antilles.
In May 2012, an Inter-regional workshop on broad-scale marine spatial planning and transboundary marine mammal management was held in Panama to review and discuss project results to date, and provide technical guidance on integrated marine spatial planning, management and governance through capacity building and exchanging experiences.
For the first time representatives of the south-east and north-east Pacific, North America and the wider Caribbean met to share and analyse maps of the large migratory routes of cetaceans, their critical habitats and the threats to them from human activities, as well as to discuss priority actions for their conservation.
"Member states were introduced to the new tools for sharing information on marine mammal spatial corridors," said Jackie Alder, co-ordinator, Freshwater and Marine Ecosystems Branch, UNEP, "This is vital information for member states if marine refuges are to be protected."
The management of marine mammals, which are migratory and widely distributed, is an enormous challenge for the region because they move through the waters of different countries and are found in Caribbean waters seasonally. Marine mammal managers, experts, stakeholders and policy makers can now share information and experiences more easily.
This will include collaborative initiatives, sub-regional and inter-regional science-policy dialogues, consultations with relevant stakeholders in the design of trans-boundary governance and management options, along with targeted dissemination of lessons, good practices and strategic information for policy support.