In a groundbreaking move, the Caribbean island of Dominica has announced the establishment of the world's first marine protected area dedicated to safeguarding the endangered sperm whale. Covering nearly 300 square miles (800 square kilometers) of pristine waters on the western side of the island, identified as vital nursing and feeding grounds, this reserve aims to ensure the safety of these majestic creatures while also contributing to the fight against climate change.
Dominica's Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, expressed the government's commitment to protecting the highly intelligent sperm whales, emphasizing their crucial role in maintaining healthy waters and a stable climate. The reserve, a significant step in marine conservation, is expected to offer additional benefits beyond safeguarding the species.
Scientists assert that sperm whales, known for defecating near the surface due to the shutdown of non-vital functions during deep dives, play a unique role in carbon sequestration. The nutrient-rich excrement released by these whales contributes to the creation of plankton blooms, effectively capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transporting it to the ocean floor upon the plankton's demise. Shane Gero, a whale biologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, notes that sperm whales in Dominica are believed to defecate more than their counterparts elsewhere, adding an intriguing dimension to their ecological impact.
Despite an estimated population of fewer than 500 sperm whales in the waters surrounding Dominica, efforts to protect this unique species remain critical. The whales in the eastern Caribbean, unlike those in other regions, exhibit limited travel distances, a phenomenon yet to be fully understood. Gero suggests that factors such as increased consumption or unique dietary preferences may contribute to their higher defecation rates.
Sperm whales, facing threats such as ship collisions, entanglement in fishing gear, and agricultural runoff, have experienced a decline in population from an estimated 2 million in pre-whaling days to around 800,000 today. The establishment of the marine reserve in Dominica aims to mitigate these threats, providing a sanctuary for sustainable artisanal fishing and establishing a safe international shipping lane to prevent further harm to the species.
Once the reserve is in place, the Dominican government plans to appoint an officer and observers to enforce regulations, ensuring the respectful use of the area and adherence to whale tourism guidelines. While visitors will still have the opportunity to witness and swim with sperm whales, restrictions will be implemented to protect these magnificent creatures.
The move has received widespread acclaim from scientists and conservationists, recognizing Dominica's dedication to preserving its unique marine ecosystem. Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, commended Dominica for acknowledging the sperm whales as citizens of the island, setting a precedent for responsible environmental stewardship.
As Dominica pioneers this innovative approach to marine conservation, the world watches with anticipation, hopeful that this bold initiative will pave the way for similar efforts in safeguarding our planet's endangered species and combating climate change.
Source: Danica Coto (Nov 14, 2023). Caribbean island creates world’s first area for sperm whales – and their poop could save the planet. INDEPENDENT. https://bit.ly/3SJcJZW