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The University of Southampton

World-first map exposes growing dangers along whale superhighways

Published: 17 February 2022
Humpback whale calf with mother
Humpback whale calf with mother in Pacific Ocean. Credit: Wu/WWF

A new report from WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), which has been produced with the University of Southampton and other global partners, provides the first truly comprehensive look at whale migrations and the threats they face across all oceans. It highlights how the cumulative impacts from industrial fishing, ship strikes, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change are creating a hazardous and sometimes fatal obstacle course for the marine species.

Protecting Blue Corridors visualises, for the first time, the satellite tracks of 845 migratory whales worldwide. The report outlines how whales are encountering multiple and growing threats in their critical ocean habitats – areas where they feed, mate, give birth, and nurse their young – and along their migration superhighways, or ‘blue corridors’.

Marine biologist at the University of Southampton, Dr Ryan Reisinger specialises in the ecology of large marine vertebrates. One of his areas of expertise is using animal tracking data – where the movement and behaviour of animals is recorded using GPS or satellite linked 'tags' – to understand and model the distribution and behaviour of creatures, such as whales. He used data sourced from scientists, worldwide, to map whale movement for the WWF report.

Southern right whale. Credit: Brian J Skerry/Nat Geog Stock/WWF
Southern right whale. Credit: Brian J Skerry/Nat Geog Stock/WWF

Dr Reisinger commented: “WWF's Blue Corridors report showcases animal tracking data from numerous scientists, highlighting the remarkable scale and extent of large whale movements globally. These data allow us to clearly show some of the threats that large whales face in Anthropocene oceans, and the huge challenge we face to conserve large whales and their ecosystems. I am hopeful that the report will galvanise stakeholders to act.”

Chris Johnson, Global Lead for whale and dolphin conservation at WWF, added: “Cumulative impacts from human activities – including industrial fishing, ship strikes, chemical, plastic and noise pollution, habitat loss, and climate change, are creating a hazardous and sometimes fatal obstacle course. The deadliest by far is entanglement in fishing gear – killing an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises each year. What’s worse, this is happening from the Arctic to the Antarctic.”

The report is a collaborative analysis of 30 years of scientific data contributed by more than 50 research groups, with leading marine scientists from the University of Southampton, Oregon State University, the University of California Santa Cruz and others.

Map of whale superhighways.
Map of whale superhighways.

“Contributing years of data from Oregon State’s satellite tracking studies, we see migrations across national and international waters creating conservation challenges for populations to recover,” said Dr Daniel M. Palacios of the Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University.

Case studies highlight hotspots and risks that whales navigate on their migrations, some of which can be thousands of kilometres each year. As a result of these hazards, six out of the 13 great whale species are now classified as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, even after decades of protection after commercial whaling. Among those populations most at risk is the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species that migrates between Canada and the United States. It is at its lowest point in 20 years – numbering only 336 individuals.

An alarming 86 percent of identified right whales are estimated to have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their life. Just one death jeopardises this population’s survival. Between 2017 and 2021, 34 North Atlantic right whales died off the Canadian and United States coasts from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

Protecting Blue Corridors calls for a new conservation approach to address these mounting threats and safeguard whales, through enhanced cooperation from local to regional, to international levels. Of particular urgency is engagement with the United Nations, which is set to finalise negotiations on a new treaty for the high seas (Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) in March 2022.

“As a researcher, this report provides a visual science-based guide to help inform effective management and decisions to create networks of marine protected areas to ensure whales have every opportunity to thrive,” says Dr Ari Friedlaender, a whale ecologist from University of California Santa Cruz.

The benefits from protected blue corridors extend far beyond whales. Growing evidence shows the critical role whales play maintaining ocean health and our global climate – with one whale capturing the same amount of carbon as thousands of trees. The International Monetary Fund estimates the value of a single great whale at more than US$2 million, which totals more than US$1 trillion for the current global population of great whales.

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