This blog series celebrates projects across the globe working with local communities to improve conservation efforts of some of the most vulnerable marine seascapes and species. Although our series and the month of June has come to an end, we hope that you have enjoyed hearing from some of our projects working to ‘Safeguard our Seas’. In the final blog post we discover the threats faced by the third largest whale in the world – the sei whale – and hear from a project led by Falklands Conservation which is striving for the establishment of key biodiversity areas this species in the Falkland Islands.
Establishing a key biodiversity area for endangered sei whales in the Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands are a remote archipelago situated approximately 500 km from the southern tip of South America. With a sub-Antarctic climate and surrounded by productive shelf waters of the South Atlantic, the Falklands support a wealth of marine biodiversity. Top predators include internationally significant breeding colonies of several seabird species including black-browed albatross, southern giant petrels and penguins, large populations of South American sea lions and fur seals, and 26 documented species of cetacean. Human marine activities in the Falklands, while relatively low compared to other geographic regions, include an offshore fishing industry primarily targeting squid, tourism (cruise and expedition vessels), shipping, and oil and gas exploration. Many of these sectors are expanding, with the recent approval of a new port facility and plans for offshore oil field development. Additionally, the introduction of coastal salmon farming is under consideration.
In recent years, awareness of the need to manage and protect marine biodiversity in the Falklands has increased, with ongoing consultation around Marine Spatial Planning and Marine Protected Areas. In 2016 the European South Atlantic overseas territories were assessed as part of a BEST initiative to ascertain whether any areas may be suitable as Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs). That process highlighted the lack of systematic data on whale populations in the Falkland Islands, and recommended the onset of targeted field research.
Since 2017, Falklands Conservation has conducted systematic surveys in Falklands’ coastal waters to collect data on the distribution, abundance and ecology of baleen whales (whales with plates of keratin that are used for filter feeding) to inform the KBA process. During 2019 and 2020, with funding from Darwin Plus, Falklands Conservation has focussed on boat-based and acoustic monitoring of whales in Berkeley Sound and Falkland Sound. Information on potential threats were assessed by examining the spatial and temporal overlap between whales and human marine activities. The primary focus of the work has been the globally Endangered sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), a species that occurs offshore and unpredictably in most regions worldwide, yet is seasonally-common in coastal waters around the Falklands. The project also focusses on wintering southern right whales (Eubalaena australis), a species classified of Least Concern globally but for which conservation status in the south-west Atlantic is of concern.
One principal aim of our project was to acquire a robust and extensive dataset on sei whales to facilitate an assessment against the standard global KBA criteria. That assessment is currently underway, and we have provided evidence that the Falklands shelf supports globally-important numbers of mature sei whales. If achieved, KBA status would influence environmental impact assessments and help to direct the subsequent Marine Spatial Planning and Marine Protected Areas processes within the Falklands to protect relevant habitat and manage potential impacts on whales. Protecting the marine environment around the Falklands also depends heavily on community engagement and stakeholder support. Our project works to raise awareness of whales with government, local community members, and school children. To date 17 volunteers have accompanied the boat surveys and assisted with spotting whales, photo-identification, and faecal sampling, and a further 20 community members attended a cetacean field training course. People take away a new enthusiasm for whales and all marine life from those opportunities, which slowly spreads across the wider community.
The scientific datasets collected during our project will provide an evidence-base for managing whales in the Falkland Islands. However, the interest and support of the local community is equally as crucial to achieving our long-term goal of sustaining these fantastic animals, and their key habitats for future decades.
For more information on project DPLUS082 led by Falklands Conservation please click here. To read the full article from this project and others that were featured in the June 2020 edition of the Darwin Newsletter, please click here.