International agreements value efforts to protect the health and wellbeing of all life on earth—from human rights to endangered species—the nations of the world have come together to figure out just how to accomplish that goal.
For a long time now, scientists and conservationists have known that marine protected areas play an important role in promoting the recovery and productivity of life in the ocean. Specially designed sanctuaries for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, also known as marine mammal protected areas (MMPAs) do exactly this. Networks of MMPAs ensure the most critical places are protected for whales, dolphins, manatees etc. Most often, these are the places where breeding, calving and feeding take place.
A key player in this effort to protect places of special value to marine mammals has been the International Committee on Marine Mammal Protected Areas. This informal group of international experts (scientists, managers, NGOs, agencies etc.) forms a community dedicated to achieving best practices focused on MMPAs. Important and far-reaching recommendations have come from the resolutions of each of the Committee’s four conferences, including Hawaii (2009), Martinique (2011), Australia (2014) and most recently Mexico. And many MMPA’s have been established as a result.
But what about the protection of marine mammals when they're transiting or migrating between those critical places?
This was the question that formed the concept at the heart of my opening plenary challenge to those gathered for the 4th International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas, held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico the week of November 14th, 2016.
Through international agreement, foreign warships can pass through a nation’s waters without challenge or harm if they're making innocent passage. And, I think we can all agree that whales and dolphins are making an innocent passage if anyone is.
A similar framework exists for commercial shipping. Passage through national waters is allowed subject to certain regulations and agreements that manage human behavior relative to safety and the environment. And there is generally agreement that it is a collective human duty to enable safe passage of ships who intend no harm. How do we regulate our human behavior to ensure the safe passage and healthy environment for whales transiting through national waters? Can we call that a duty too?
When people pass through the national waters of any country, whether it is the innocent passage of nonbelligerent warships, commercial vessels, or recreational craft, we cannot shoot them, ram them, tie them up and entangle them, nor can we poison their food, water or air. But these are the things, both accidental and intentional, that happen to the marine mammals who are perhaps the most innocent of those who pass through our waters. So how can we stop?
The answer? A continental scale proposal! The Ocean Foundation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and other partners seek to protect the coastal waters of the entire hemisphere for the safe passage of marine mammals. We are proposing the designation of corridors for marine mammal “safe passage” that can link our continental scale networks of marine mammal protected areas for the protection and conservation of marine mammals. From Glacier Bay to Tierra del Fuego and from Nova Scotia down the east coast of the United States, through the Caribbean, and down to the very tip of South America, we envision a pair of corridors—carefully researched, designed, and mapped—that recognize the “safe passage” for blue whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, and dozens of other species of whales and dolphins, and even manatees.
As we sat in that windowless conference room in Puerto Vallarta, we outlined some next steps for achieving our vision. We played with ideas for how to name our plan and ended up agreeing ‘Well, it’s two corridors in two oceans. Or, two corridors in two coasts. And thus, it can be 2 Coasts 2 Corridors.”
Creating these two corridors will complement, integrate and expand on the many existing marine mammal sanctuaries and protections in this hemisphere. It will connect the protections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the USA to the network of regional sanctuaries by filling in the gaps for a marine mammal migratory corridor.
This will better allow our community of practice to develop common initiatives and programs related to the development and management of marine mammal sanctuaries, including monitoring, awareness raising, capacity building and communication, as well as on-the-ground management and practices. This should help strengthen the effectiveness of sanctuary management frameworks and their implementation. And, the study of behavior of animals during migrations, as well as better understand human induced pressures and threats facing these species during such migrations.
We will map the corridors and identify where there are gaps in protection. Then, we will encourage governments to adopt best practices in ocean governance, law and policy (the management of human activities) related to marine mammals to provide consistency for various actors and interests within national waters and the Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction that coincide with corridors we will describe.
We know we have many shared marine mammal species in this hemisphere. What we lack is transboundary protection of iconic and threatened marine mammals. Fortunately, we have the existing protections and protected areas. Voluntary guidelines and transboundary agreements can underpin most of the distance. We have political will and public affection for marine mammals, as well as the expertise and dedication of the people in the MMPA community of practice.
2017 marks the 45th Anniversary of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. 2018 will mark 35 years since we enacted a global moratorium on commercial whaling. 2 Coasts 2 Corridors will need every member of our community’s support at different times during the process. Our goal is to have safe passage for whales and dolphins firmly in place when we celebrate the 50th anniversaries.