Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a letter of intent had been signed with the Bermuda Department of Environmental Protection to establish a sanctuary for humpback whales. This will be the third such sanctuary for Atlantic Ocean humpbacks - the other two being the Stellwagen Bank in Maine and the Santuario Mamiferos Marinos in the Dominican Republic.
There are five distinct populations of humpback whales in the North Atlantic: Maine (Stellwagen Bank), Nova Scotia, Greenland, Norway, and Iceland. In the north, the whales feed but when breeding season approaches, they head south to the Caribbean. These migratory patterns are of considerable importance to researchers as the better they understand them, the more effective the management and regulatory policies can be made to protect them. Some of these migratory highways are known to cross established shipping lanes, and that has resulted in collisions with ships which produce serious injury or death.
As an example, after studying whale movements based on sightings over a 20 year period, a proposal was recently made to move shipping northward by 12 degrees; the anticipated result being a drop in strikes by ships of over 80 percent.
Both the proposed Bermuda and the Dominican Republic sanctuaries are considered "sister" sanctuaries to Stellwagen Bank. In the Caribbean, the various whale populations mingle, guaranteeing a good mix of the gene pool, before all heading back to their respective northern locations. While more sanctuaries are being sought in and around the Dominican Republic, the Bermuda sanctuary is less in the specific breeding zone than it is a spot along the route.
Positioned just south of halfway along the whales' journey, the sanctuary would afford researchers the opportunity to study the whales during migration, provides protection within the migratory corridor, and even affords Bermuda the opportunity to generate additional tourism dollars through whale watching excursions.
"This is a first step in putting together conservation stepping stones throughout their migration. The expansion of our Sister Sanctuary Program will play a powerful role in protecting endangered humpback whales, and the opportunity for international cooperation in marine conservation is invaluable," said Nathalie Ward of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Humpback whales - recognizable by their long pectoral (front) fins and famous for their possible communicating via long, ethereal "songs" - are found in basically all of the world's oceans. While protected by many nations, they have been hunted by a few of the remaining whaling nations, in particular Japan, who takes them under the guise of scientific research, a shameful loophole in the whaling moratorium regulations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The current population of humpback whales is estimated at around 80,000, down from a pre-whaling population of around 125,000. That's a better situation than other species of whales and, in 2008, the IUCN changed the whale's listing regarding possible extinction from "Vulnerable" to "Least Concern."
Sounds like a slowly evolving success story but there is still much that we don't know about these immense but graceful marine mammals, so the work goes on and whale advocates remain ever vigilant.