Mediterranean Governments miss opportunity to protect threatened beaked whales

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Cuvier’s beaked whale killed in Canary islands waters in coincidence with NATO naval maneuvers. Photo courtesy of Vidal Martin, SECAC.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale, Ziphius cavirostris, is a cetacean particularly vulnerable to the loud noise propagated underwater across the oceans, e.g., by military sonar and by seismic surveys to prospect for oil and gas at sea. When hit by these sounds, for reasons still poorly understood these whales are often lethally hurt; and even when they are too far from the sound source to be injured, the whales are impacted because they may leave an area which contains optimal habitat for them. Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Mediterranean, a threatened population which is separate from the rest of the world’s oceans, have been heavily affected by human-induced underwater noise, due to the frequent naval manoeuvres in a region of high strategic importance, and to the current widespread craze of finding oil or gas in the sea bottom.

To address beaked whale conservation problems caused by these circumstances, the Scientific Committee of the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS) – which I chaired from 2002 to 2010 and which I have been a member of until last week – was requested by the Agreement’s parties to provide indications about the whereabouts of critical habitats of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Mediterranean in order to support appropriate mitigation measures.

To make a very long story short, in a process which lasted seven years a spatial model was developed under the auspices of the Scientific Committee, on the basis of a large database of Cuvier’s beaked whale sightings contributed by a number of scientific organisations (described in Cañadas et al. 2011, presented at the 63rd meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission). Based on the model, areas having high and medium probability of containing Ziphius’ critical habitat were identified, and were surrounded by a safety buffer of 50 nautical miles (= 92.6 km) to allow for the intensity of noise to decay to safer levels before reaching the whales’ critical habitat (Fig. 1).

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Fig. 1. Areas including predicted high and medium density of Cuvier’s beaked whales (red), surrounded by 50 n.m. buffer (yellow), based on a model developed by Cañadas et al. 2011.

The threshold of 50 n.m. was adopted on the basis of a very successful precedent implemented by Spain around the Canary Islands, after a tragic mass stranding of beaked whales occurred there in 2004 as a result of NATO naval manoeuvres. As an added precaution, the locations of 37 atypical beaked whale stranding events (defined as 2 or more whales stranded in the same area within a fixed amount of time), occurred in the Mediterranean from 1963 to 2011 and causing the death of 149 whales, were plotted on a different map, again with a safety buffer of 50 nautical miles (Fig. 2).

Having thus obtained a map of the predicted habitat of Cuvier’s beaked whales, and a map of the atypical mass stranding of these whales, the two maps were combined in Fig. 3, resulting in the subdivision of the Mediterranean Sea into two area types: Areas of Special Concern for Beaked Whales (in yellow), and Areas on Unknown Risk (in grey)(*).

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Fig. 2. Locations of atypical strandings of beaked whales in the Mediterranean surrounded by a 50 n.m. buffer zone.

Thus, the Scientific Committee transmitted this last map to the parties to ACCOBAMS, with the recommendations that: a) naval exercises involving the use of loud anti-submarine sonar be avoided in the Areas of Special Concern; b) seismic exploration in the Areas of Special Concern be fully justified with Environmental Impact Assessments, including a report on the lack of alternative locations and an independently evaluated protocol to mitigate impacts; and c) mitigation should always be applied before, during and after activities emitting intense noise sources in Areas of Unknown Risk.

It all seemed quite reasonable, as it was formulated by the Scientific Committee in order to respond to a precise request by the parties, and presented with a constructive attitude to indicate a way forward. The Committee’s intention was to help empowering the Mediterranean societies, which have declared their commitment to protect the region’s cetaceans by ratifying the ACCOBAMS Agreement, to respect such commitment while at the same time assuaging their national security concerns and continuing to search for their coveted submerged oilfields. In its recommendation, the Scientific Committee also noted that although the results were the best that could be attained based on the available knowledge, these could certainly be improved in the future through the collection of more data, particularly in areas of the Mediterranean where beaked whale observations are still scant, and with the benefit of a full and transparent cooperation with all concerned stakeholders in good faith; the military and the oil & gas industry included and welcome, of course.

So, was the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS thanked and patted on the back for its lengthy and constructive efforts?

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Fig. 3. Areas of Special Concern for Mediterranean Cuvier’s beaked whales (yellow), and Areas of Unknown Risk (grey), resulting from the combination of Figs. 1 and 2.

Not quite.

On 7 November 2013 I was asked to present the recommendation at the 5th Meeting of the Parties of ACCOBAMS in Tangier, Morocco. Unfortunately, I must report that the Scientific Committee’s advice was dismissed by the parties, never mind that they were the ones that requested it in the first place. Due to a veto from France, Greece and Cyprus, on the grounds of safeguarding national security and, ultimately, national sovereignty, the very concept of suggesting place-based conservation of Ziphius cavirostris in the Mediterranean was thwarted. The representative from the Greek Ministry of Defense even went to the extreme of requesting that any reference to a map in the final report of the meeting be deleted, as if a map had never even been discussed. That request having been denied, the map is going to be made available to the public through the report. In compliance with the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which Greece is party to, a copy of the map is also presented here as Fig. 3.

So, three more years will now elapse, and likely many more Cuvier’s beaked whales will be extirpated from their remaining Mediterranean habitat, before the scientific community will have another chance of recommending concrete actions for safeguarding the last of the species in the region.

Ironically, at the same Tangier meeting the parties to ACCOBAMS, by adopting a new strategy for the period 2014-2025, emphasized their vision “that cetacean populations in the ACCOBAMS area will be in favourable conservation status, expressed as healthy populations and habitats with minimized adverse human impacts, with ACCOBAMS having a role of key regional player also in promoting active regional cooperation”.



(*) The formulation of the Recommendation and the maps were the result of a cooperative work among Ana Cañadas, Alexandros Frantzis, Natacha Aguilar and myself, with the support of Niki Entrup, Tim Lewis and Walter Zimmer.

17 comments to Mediterranean Governments miss opportunity to protect threatened beaked whales

  • Lindy Weilgart

    Well said, Giuseppe! I could have even tolerated party states saying that they agree with the science but that they must follow practical considerations, but especially Greece was largely too chicken to do even that. Shame!

  • Lindy Weilgart

    Actually, in future, I think we scientists need to be more savvy about these things. Maybe before undergoing work, some commitment to follow the science should be obtained from the party states. Even a commitment to accept the science but not commit to follow the policy ramifications because of other considerations would be something. I am SO tired of science serving as fig leaf and excuse for inaction. How can we submit the best state of the science only to have countries decide they don’t like the results later on? Imagine a lab being tasked with analyzing forensic evidence only to have the police reject it since it doesn’t fit with their purposes or program? Or medical lab results being rejected because the patients’ family or doctors don’t like the results? I have thought about this re noise impact studies–that regulators need to agree ahead of time to change policy according to scientific results, otherwise one doesn’t subject the animals or waste the public funds if it’s going to be ignored anyway.

  • This is such an elegant and carefully prepared piece of work and so disappointing to see it trashed in one episode for selfish sectoral interests in just 3 countries. I wonder if you could try to trial these protection areas at least in the countries that are open to it, following in the footsteps of the Canary Islands. And then an effort could be made to celebrate this work in the countries where protection areas are functioning….

  • Well said indeed. Unfortunately, political considerations almost always seem to override science. Hence we have the shambles that is the Common Fisheries Policy. In the UK, protected terrestrial mammals – badgers – are being culled as part of a campaign to eradicate bovine TB, despite good scientific evidence indicating that at best, this will result in only a trivial decrease in the incidence of the disease. And now the failure to safeguard beaked whales in the Mediterranean. I’m sure there are countless more examples. It’s all about greed and the desire of politicians to remain in power. Perhaps too, it signals a failure of democracy, when politicians base their decisions not on the facts, but on what the implications may be for themselves and their cronies. NGOs can help by bringing issues to the attention of electorates, but there are so many important causes being promoted, that obscure critters like Cuvier’s beaked whales stand little chance of entering the mass consciousness. It’s all very frustrating, but the important thing is not to give up, although we could perhaps do with some more creative ideas about how to nail politicians down to honouring their policies and strategies.

  • Sylvia Frey

    Dear Giuseppe, very well and carefully said. Thank you for this.

  • Heidi Frisch

    I agree the result is disappointing. Much more is needed, and Parties missed a chance to take some decisive action for a species in trouble.
    However, there are also some good points in the resolution as it was eventually passed, one of them being that the unchanged recommendation of the Scientific Committee (including the map) is not to be shelved and forgotten about, but to be actively brought to the attention of relevant international and regional instruments. This shows that not all Parties felt the work of the Scientific Committee was to be disregarded! The next CMS Scientific Council would be the right place for that and we might want to think about encouraging the submission of the recommendation to this meeting.
    The resolution also asks for the work on identification of critical habitat to continue as more data becomes available, and encourages that the identified areas be used as management tools to plan noise producers’ activities. There are several other useful points in there. None of them as concrete and binding as needed, but I believe still a small step in the right direction. And they can certainly be used to move this issue forward in the time until the next MOP.

    • Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

      Indeed, Heidi, all that you say is correct. However none of it will happen unless all persons of goodwill from civil society will fight for it.

  • You can count on us. We are mobilizing the civil society with our Silent Oceans Campaign and strive for mitigation of noise, protected zones in critical habitat, compliance, control and enforcement.

  • Liz Slooten

    Great job Giuseppe!

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t necessarily make it drink… Keep at it! As you know, these things often take many years to resolve.

  • Hola Guiseppe,

    Non-stop, drop by drop, work by work, step by step … day by day … keep on going… your way is the way, dont doubt about it ¡¡
    You should feel proud of it.
    It is clear thatwWe are working not only for tomorrow morning.
    we have to keep on going to the aims without making much noise¡¡
    As you well know dead whales are quite silent. But causes are very noisy ¡.
    We will put our small contribution in knowing cuases and effects to prevent them for your next big drop…
    Thanks again, Antonio and many more (

  • Rob Baldwin

    Thanks for an excellently articulated summary of the situation, Giuseppe. Its a setback, but we now all know where to target the efforts most (both capitalising on those countries that were in support, and campaigning in those that were not), and we also once again understand the need to try and agree ahead of time with politicians that if they want the science then they have to listen to it! As ever, Giuseppe, your time, energy and expertise is not wasted. It just takes a long time for certain seeds you plant to grow. Its also a good lesson for us working in other parts of the world, such as here in the Middle East, where bodies like ACCOBAMS are non-existent or in their infancy.

  • Nice summary of the situation, Giuseppe. I’m sorry I had to miss this year’s MOP. But did they justify how they could mandate the Scientific Committee to provide recommendations based on best science, waste 7 years of people’s time, waste the money they put into ACCOBAMS and its Scientific Committee, and then blatantly ignore that?
    Yes, national security, etc., but it’s not like the recommendations closed down the entire Mediterranean…

  • Thank you Giuseppe for an interesting summary on what transpired. While it is indeed very frustrating, you and your team have provided the countries who do have an interest in the protection of these species with a great starting point. The maps are very telling and clear and will no doubt become a really useful tool. As someone working in Sri Lanka, it is also interesting to know how other parts of the world approach or treat such important issues…makes me feel much less alone. Keep fighting the good fight, it is never in vain! I hope you don’t mind that I put a link to this post on my blog to bring more attention to your efforts.

  • Dear Giuseppe,

    thanks for sharing this with everyone. It is important that these situations come public and everybody is aware of what eventually happens at the top with the decision makers. Changes take time, sometime, long time but they cannot delete the good work and data that will always be there to testify a situation and I am positive that cannot event remain unnoticed for too long! They have may refused it this year, next time will be harder for them and anyone to take such decision. And there will be more data as we keep on working!!

  • Mafoumba

    Do you know that France still don’t have any guidelines for seismic surveys !!! and shoot with unqualified observers people onboard… I can give you exemple of IFREMER shooting just now in a whale sanctuary close to Guadeloupe (where I am from), they took 2 unpaid students to observe and mitigate seismic activities ! NO one qualified as PAM operators or MMO… no experience, nada !!!!! This world is crazy, I jump on this to let you know that for me and my experience, 98% of the PAM operators don’t know how to recognise a beaked whale signal from a dolphin ! This is terrible,especially that some country do stop operations for beaked whale but it is of no use when no one knows how to distinguish them against a none stopping species…. how come you never see them (BW) on PAM reports, MMOs and PAMs operator are for the most a banch of underqualified teens that once had a dream to see whales and undertake a too big responsibility for the task at hand.I would advise those teens to go on whale watching tours or even go and serve for charity and get experienced… but get the hell out of seismic boats !!!
    As you say noises are perceived way beyond the 500m security zone that most guidelines recognise. There is a big gap in science and we need to all work together to prove scientificly those impacts. As long as there will be doubt, this will continue. We all need to also control the efficiency of MMOs and PAM monitoring quality !!! Surveyors seem to enrol cheap labour and recruiting agency also to win bids…. the quality is degrading and whales and dolphins are paying the cost of it.

    Mafoumba !!!

  • […] of governments in the region).  As reported by a long-time chair of the Scientific Committee, the recommendation fell on deaf ears when presented to the full ACCOBAM meeting of the parties last year; military preparedness was the […]