We need safe havens for our ocean giants!

A Basking shark in UK coastal waters. Photo: Andrew Pearson / The Wildlife Trusts.
A Basking shark in UK coastal waters. Photo: Andrew Pearson / The Wildlife Trusts.
'Ocean giants' in our coastal waters are increasingly rare, writes Dr Lissa Batey, thanks to a host of threats from pollution to entrapment in fishing gear. Marine Protected Areas in England and Wales could help restore our cetaceans to their former abundance - but so far, only one has been designated for these species in Wales, and none in England.
Not one of the 27 already designated marine protected areas in the waters around England and Wales, nor any of the 23 currently under consultation, protect any of the ocean giants.

They may be the mightiest creatures in our seas, but whales, dolphins and the basking shark - the world's second biggest fish - are in trouble and badly need protecting in the UK's seas.

Every time I'm on, or in the sea I am amazed at what I see, from the tiny cup corals and jewel anemones to shoals of fish seeking refuge on a rocky reef.

But without doubt the encounters that really get my heart going are those with the ocean giants - the whales, dolphins, porpoises and sharks. Every encounter has been a true wonder, and I have learned to not only respect, but deeply love these majestic, exciting creatures.

I have been lucky enough to silently observe harbour porpoise feeding in tidal races - watching the fish leap out of the water before a porpoise emerges in hot pursuit; and to encounter hundreds of common dolphins, accompanied by their young. For me, nothing could be more magical.

But the moment that sticks in my mind is of a humpback breaching - something most people associate with whale watching experiences abroad, or a documentary on television. To witness that spectacle at home was wondrous.

Missing link - no protection for cetaceans in our coastal waters

But it's not the kind of experience that should be as unusual as it is! Many whale, dolphin and porpoise species can be found around our shores, along with the world's second largest shark - the basking shark - a gentle giant which only feeds on plankton.

But they're in trouble: fisheries by-catch, disturbance from offshore development and the bioaccumulation of contaminants means that some of the 28 species of whale, dolphin, porpoise and the basking shark that use British waters are in decline.

One welcome initiative that could help is the designation of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) to protect marine wildlife. But not one of the 27 already designated MCZs in the waters around England and Wales, nor any of the 23 currently under consultation, include any of the ocean giants as species listed for protection.

Instead they protect seabed features. And while that is an excellent thing in itself, and long overdue, it leaves the charismatic species with which most of us are familiar, and which sit at the top of the oceans' food webs, at risk from multiple threats.

MCZs designated to protect cetaceans are a huge missing link in our goal to achieve an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas - including MCZs, marine Special Areas of Conservation (designated under the Habitats Directive) and marine Special Protection Areas (designated under the Birds Directive).

And we know they can work, as other parts of the world have implemented protection of marine megafauna successfully (see list of examples, below).

The Wildlife Trusts believe that protection is most needed in the hotspots where these charismatic animals gather to feed, breed and socialise. These are also sites of nutrient upwelling, making them biologically diverse from the seabed bottom-feeders through to the top predators.

Not one of the 27 already designated marine protected areas in the waters around England and Wales, nor any of the 23 currently under consultation, protect any of the ocean giants.

Protecting safe havens

We are proposing that 17 special areas around England and Wales should become safe havens for our ocean giants, by designating a combination of new MCZs and SACs - and by adding new features and species to already designated sites.

At present the nutrient-rich places that they need most for feeding, breeding and socialising are completely unprotected in English waters. In Wales, there is only one protected site - Cardigan Bay SAC for the bottlenose dolphin. And even that site fails to recognise the harbour porpoise, which therefore enjoys no specific protection.

These sites have been identified using public data, and data gathered by The Wildlife Trusts. There will be other important areas for which data is not yet available and, therefore, what we are proposing here is the first step. More research is needed to ensure all the right areas have the protection they need.

For a network of protected sites to be meaningful it must be coherent, connected, representative and resilient in the face of change. So it's essential to ensure that we have enough sites, in the right places, with the right connections, each protecting a range of species. A single site for a single species is not enough.

Complicating the picture is the controversial question of how to protect mobile and migratory species through 'spatial' protection measures. Our answer is clear: sites must be selected that protect key life stages of such species, and provide them with safe havens at the most vulnerable parts of their life cycle.

Only then - alongside management measures which address specific threats, such as entanglement in fishing gear - can we begin to protect these magnificent creatures and restore them to their former abundance.




Dr Lissa Batey
works for The Wildlife Trusts on Marine Protected Areas, fisheries management in European Marine Sites and marine renewables. With 15 years experience in marine conservation, Lissa has campaigned for increased protection for our marine environment with particular expertise in cetacean ecology, bycatch mitigation, and acoustic monitoring; basking shark research; teaching; public engagement; and marine renewables. She also led The Wildlife Trusts in responding to plans for a Severn barrage.

More information on our Ocean Giants campaign. You can also find links here to the corresponding campaigns for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

MPAs already designated around the world

Gerry E. Studds Stellwagon Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 1992

This is an area of high productivity as a result of upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the Gulf of Maine being forced over the bank at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. It is an important feeding area for endangered North Atlantic right whales, along with humpback, fin, and minke whales. Dolphins, and porpoises and seals are also recorded from the area along with sea turtles, seabirds, basking sharks, and a range of commercial fish species.

Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, 1999

One of the first examples of a Marine Protected Area based on a highly productive pelagic ecosystem. Identified for its cetacean populations, it has a permanent frontal system which concentrates primary productivity, along with high krill and zooplankton biomass. In turn this provides food for a rich pelagic diversity including one baleen whale and seven toothed whale / dolphin species, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) and large fish such as tuna, swordfish and sunfish. Cetaceans use the area for feeding, breeding and migrating. A management plan for the MPA was adopted soon after the Sanctuary was designated.

The Gully Marine Protected Area, 2004

A highly productive and biodiverse submarine canyon on the Scotian Shelf off Eastern Canada. It is critical habitat for northern bottlenose whales, which are generally found in the central upwelling waters, but forage along the Scotian shelf too. The area is used as a feeding and mating/breeding area for at least seven other cetaceans.

Southwest Crete-Hellenic Trench Marine Protected Area, 2007

Agreed in principle by ACCOBAMS parties in 2007, the area was proposed to protect cetacean habitat including areas used by sperm whale mothers and calves, and is also important for Cuvier's beaked whales.

Hanifaru Marine Protected Area and An'gafaru Marine Protected Area in Baa atoll, and Maamigili Marine Protected Area in South Ari atoll, 2009

Three new MPA s designated in the Maldives in 2009, to protect the incredible biodiversity including whale sharks and manta rays (the sites include a manta ray cleaning station). They also support important coral formation and breeding grounds for grey reef sharks.