What benefits could there be on creating a marine sanctuary for cetaceans involving Azores, Madeira and Canary?

“Sanctuary of whales” question
Rui M. Ponte
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Rui M. Ponte

Let’s admit, in any case, that there are no major reasons for not implementing a sanctuary for cetaceans, and let’s approach the question as it was placed, from the point of view of its possible advantages. Since the beneficial effects in a purely ecological perspective are not the concern, the question is understood more in terms of such “side effects”.Although we can make a long list of these effects, including the above mentioned and others, possibly more vague, such as population awareness for the matter of marine environment, creation of new cultural habits, promotion of a new relationship with nature, etc, quantifying these benefits is not easy, as we can see from some studies dedicated to this theme (e.g., "Marine Protected Areas: Tools for Sustaining Ocean Ecosystems", Committee on the Evaluation, Design and Monitoring of Marine Reserves and Protected Areas in the United States, Ocean Studies Board, Comission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2001).
Anyway, in order to have an idea about the advantages of creating a cetacean sanctuary in the area of Azores, extensive to Madeira and Canary, it is important to look to what was already done for that purpose in other parts of the globe. There are not many relevant experiences and they have been going on for a relative short time, but they can provide us with some factual data.

In the U.S, although there are already many protected marine areas (http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/welcome.html), those specially created for cetaceans are less common. Some cases that I know are the sanctuary in the Hawaiian islands (http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/welcome.html) and in the area of Stellwagen Bank, in the waters of New England, both created in 1992.
The performance evaluations of these sanctuaries suggest that the economic benefits, particularly associated to whale watching and other activities in the eco-tourism, but also in the commercial fishing and scientific research domains, are real and quantifiable. The same can be said about other protected areas not specifically related with cetaceans. Several information and publications lists that document those positive results can be consulted in NOAA website about the U.S. cetacean sanctuaries (http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/welcome.html). The access to that information could be facilitated through direct contact with the experts involved in these studies and evaluations.

Experiences in countries like Mexico (Baja California) and Australia, with a cetacean sanctuary that covers its entire economic exclusive zone, are certainly examples also to consider and study carefully. Besides the sanctuaries already mentioned, of a relatively small dimension or confined to coastal areas, there are also other protected areas much more extensive in the Indian and Southern Oceans. Established by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in order to prohibit all whaling for commercial purposes, these sanctuaries continue to generate more controversy than consensus. Attempts to extend the protection of cetaceans to the South Atlantic have not yet been successful. If this is what is intended for the North Atlantic, it is anticipated that an international adoption will be difficult to achieve. Besides, implementation, management and monitoring of sanctuaries of great dimension are not easy. And the benefits for population, even for a matter of minor geographical proximity, would necessarily be more diluted.

As a small region, dependent of its natural resources and of a solid environmental balance in order to aspire to a healthy, sustainable development, Azores should be in the forefront when it comes to efforts to preserve the environment. The existence of a marine sanctuary for cetaceans fits perfectly into that strategy, which could and should integrate other components. In this regard, a study published recently in the August 30 edition of Nature magazine (Halpern et al., ASSESS, An index to the health and benefits of the global ocean, p. 615) reports on the health of the oceans, including the seas of Azores, with some reasons for concern.
The creation of a cetacean sanctuary should, in my opinion, be part of a deeper and wider reflection that aims to establish an overall strategy for the conservation of the environmental and ecological balance in Azores.

In short, and back to the beginning, in order to decide about the implementation of a cetacean sanctuary in the seas of Azores it will be necessary to evaluate the advantages and also the possible disadvantages of such measure. To do that, first of all, I believe we should study and learn what there is to learn from the experience of other countries in dealing with sanctuaries meant to protect cetaceans, seeking, if necessary, the opinion of both foreign experts and the scientific community working in Azores University, which will certainly have a strong contribution to make in clarifying the matter.

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