The Mediterranean Sea is not a safe home for all whale and dolphin species

All but two whale and dolphin species in the Mediterranean are now classified as threatened in the IUCN Red List, with four populations Critically Endangered. Morigenos, together with its partners OceanCare, Dolphin Biology and Conservation and Tethys Research Institute, calls on Mediterranean countries to reverse the trend by following and implementing science-based conservation advice.

Yesterday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released the latest assessments of the conservation status of whale and dolphin species in the Mediterranean Sea, listing 9 of the 11 species regularly present in the Mediterranean Sea in one of the ‘threatened’ categories in the Red List. Experts from Morigenos also participated in this process for some of the species. Subpopulations of four species – the common dolphins in the Gulf of Corinth, the bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Ambracia as well as the killer whales and long-finned pilot whales in the Strait of Gibraltar – are considered Critically Endangered and face extinction. Major threats include fishing activities leading to prey depletion, habitat degradation and incidental mortality in fishing gear, as well as underwater noise, chemical and plastic pollution, and climate change.

The overall Mediterranean population of bottlenose dolphins, which includes the population in the Gulf of Trieste, is one of only two species assessed as Least Concern. Despite this, some local populations, such as the already mentioned Critically Endangered subpopulation in the Gulf of Ambracia, face greater pressures than others. The population inhabiting the Gulf of Trieste and adjacent waters of the northern Adriatic Sea – studied over the past 19 years by Morigenos – faces multiple threats but appears relatively stable. The Mediterranean common dolphin, once common in the northern Adriatic Sea but considered regionally extinct today, has been listed as Endangered.

“The Mediterranean Sea just is not a safe home for whales and dolphins. It has not been for decades, but the now presented trends show it is getting even worse for most species. Politicians must be aware that marine mammals are essential components of healthy marine ecosystems and act as a kind of indicator for the status of the ocean – so better do something about it,” says Nicolas Entrup, Co-Director International Relations at OceanCare.

“Whales and dolphins can sometimes be remarkably resilient to human pressures. However, as most populations are getting worse rather than better, it is clear that we are literally throwing too much at them. And it’s not just about whales and dolphins. All of these threats are also negatively affecting their entire ecosystem, upon which we humans also depend,” says Tilen Genov, President of Morigenos – Slovenian Marine Mammal Society and member of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group.

Joan Gonzalvo, Director of the Ionian Dolphin Project, run by the Tethys Research Institute, and Chair of the European Cetacean Society, gives an example: “By ensuring the survival of the critically endangered bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Ambracia, we can trigger protection of the marine environment as a whole; as a flagship species, they can play a crucial role.”

Large whales declining in the Mediterranean Sea

The future for the two large whale species regularly present in the Mediterranean Sea doesn’t look bright, either. The sperm whale was again classified as Endangered, whereas the fin whale – the largest Mediterranean species and the only baleen whale regularly present in the Mediterranean Sea (and also occurring in the Gulf of Trieste – most recently in November 2020) – has been up-listed from Vulnerable to Endangered. While 3500 fin whales were previously estimated to occur in the region, scientists believe there may be just 1800 left, based on the large-scale ACCOBAMS Survey Initiative (ASI) facilitated by the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS).

Both sperm whales and fin whales are particularly exposed to the risk of collision with ships and to human-made underwater noise. Recently, researchers also have expressed severe concerns about micro- and macro-plastic ingested by fin whales or by sperm whales, respectively.

“The situation is particularly worrisome and demands immediate actions. ACCOBAMS and the International Whaling Commission are developing a Conservation Management Plan for Mediterranean fin whales which contains a number of research, conservation, mitigation and monitoring actions to be implemented by range states with a concrete involvement of stakeholders,” explains Simone Panigada, President of the Tethys Research Institute and Chair of the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS.

At the end of November, the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS made a number of Recommendations for immediate action in response to the new Red List Assessment: all governments that are Parties to ACCOBAMS need to comply with and enforce these actions towards a favourable conservation status of the species within the Agreement Area as well as implement actions defined within the conservation management plans for the species.

“Protecting species and populations is of course of paramount importance but we should not feel satisfied once we learn that numbers have become stable as a result of conservation efforts. What is the point of allowing the animals to survive, if survival means for them needing to constantly struggle to avoid drowning in a net, being chopped up by the propeller of a vessel, being deafened by airguns, or sickened for having ingested toxic chemicals or microplastics? Our task will be completed only when we know that the animals are flourishing in the environment they have evolved to live in,” said Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, founder of the Tethys Research Institute and Councillor for aquatic mammals at the Convention on Migratory Species.

“The restoration of the seas’ diversity and richness is bound not only to benefit the whales and dolphins, but also to create the possibility of a better, i.e. more liveable and equitable, world for future generations. Considering the current scale of threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms, it has become a matter of survival for our own species to not only reduce destructive and unsustainable exploitation, but also to begin serious efforts to revive complex and resilient terrestrial and marine food webs,” concludes marine conservation biologist Giovanni Bearzi.