Dominica establishing world’s first sperm whale reserve

FAN Editor

The Caribbean island of Dominica is creating the world’s first marine protected area for sperm whales, the island’s government announced Monday.

Sperm whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Hundreds of the whales live off of Dominica year-round. 

National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala, who’s worked to establish the preserve, told 60 Minutes it would protect the whales from their greatest threats: plastic trash, noise pollution and ship strikes.

“Protecting these whales offers an incredible, cost-effective climate solution that has been overlooked by policymakers,” Sala said in a statement Monday. “By protecting sperm whales, Dominica is bolstering its climate resilience. The more sperm whales in Dominica’s waters, the more carbon sequestered in the deep sea, thus helping to mitigate global warming.”  

Sala has been advising the government of Dominica on the establishment of the reserve. Government officials said about 300 square miles would be designated as the new reserve. 

Whale with squid in its mouth 60 Minutes

The reserve will cover less than 3 percent of Dominica’s waters, according to the announcement. Sustainable fishing, which does not interfere with the whales, will still be allowed. There will also be a “Senior Whale Officer” appointed to ensure regulations are enforced. 

“The 200 or so sperm whales that call our sea home are prized citizens of Dominica,” Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a statement. “Their ancestors likely inhabited Dominica before humans arrived. We want to ensure these majestic and highly intelligent animals are safe from harm and continue keeping our waters and our climate healthy.”

The sperm whale population has been declining for the last 20 years, Sala previously told 60 Minutes. The whales living off of Dominica are mostly females — families made up of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who stay together for life, nursing and raising their young. 

Male whales live off of Dominica with their families until their teen years. Then they roam mostly alone, swimming thousands of miles away. 

Caribbean males have been found as far away as Norway. They live solitary lives, often growing to the size of two school buses and returning to tropical waters only to mate.

National Geographic Explorer Shane Gero started the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. Over the past 18 years, he’s identified more than 35 family clans in the region. 

“These ‘island whales’ live alongside humans, preferring this island over others, making our actions in their ocean home their biggest threat,” Gero said in Monday’s announcement. “These whales are entangled in fishing gear, ingest our plastic trash that washes into the sea, engulfed in our noise which radiates deep into the ocean where they hunt for squid, and are hit by ships, a particularly heightened threat in the Caribbean, where everything is imported and many vessels transit between islands. All of this comes together to paint a distressing picture for the future of sperm whales.” 

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