Whales face increasing dangers on migratory superhighways, new map shows

Posted on February, 17 2022

Urgent action is needed to safeguard whales amid mounting threats along their migratory routes, says a new global conservation report by WWF and the marine mammal science community.
Whales are encountering multiple and growing threats, a world-first satellite map and report reveal. These threats are particularly acute in whales’ ‘critical ocean habitats’ – areas where they feed, mate, give birth, and nurse their young – and along their migration superhighways, or ‘blue corridors’. 

The map and report, Protecting Blue Corridors, are based on the global satellite tracks of 900 migratory whales, highlighting 30 years of scientific data contributed by more than 50 research groups. Released today by WWF, this is a collaborative analysis with leading marine scientists from Oregon State University, University of California Santa Cruz, University of Southampton and others.

“Cumulative impacts from human activities – including industrial fishing, ship strikes, chemical, plastic and noise pollution, habitat loss, and climate change – are creating a hazardous and sometimes fatal obstacle course,” said Chris Johnson, Global Lead for whale and dolphin conservation at WWF. “The deadliest by far is entanglement in fishing gear – killing an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises each year. What’s worse, this is happening from the Arctic to the Antarctic.”[1]

As a result of these hazards, six out of the 13 great whale species are now classified as endangered or vulnerable by the IUCN, even after decades of protection after commercial whaling.[2] In EU waters, the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise is facing extinction, with only a few hundred animals remaining following incidents of bycatch, environmental contaminants, prey depletion and disturbance from underwater noise.[3] Dolphins are recurring victims of entanglement in fishing gear, with 1,200 of them perishing in France’s Bay of Biscay alone between December 2018 and March 2019.[4]

A new conservation approach to address mounting threats and to safeguard whales is urgently needed, with enhanced cooperation from local to regional to international levels. Of particular urgency is engagement with the United Nations, which is set to finalise negotiations on a new treaty for the high seas (Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction)* in March 2022.[5]

Dr Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at WWF European Policy Office said: “Five of the six globally endangered or vulnerable whale species call European waters home. We must accelerate the implementation of strategies and technologies already available to mitigate threats to their wellbeing, including seasonal closures of fisheries and onboard cameras to improve data on bycatch, which ultimately prevent wildlife entanglement in fishing gear. This must be paired with strong maritime and environmental policies and robust management plans for sustainable at-sea activities. In the context of the targets set in the European Green Deal and EU Biodiversity Strategy, setting aside space for nature to recover and thrive is now absolutely essential.”

The benefits from protected blue corridors extend far beyond whales. Growing evidence shows the critical role whales play in maintaining ocean health and our global climate – with one whale capturing the same amount of carbon as thousands of trees. The International Monetary Fund estimates the value of a single great whale at more than US$2 million (EUR 1.75 million), which totals more than US$1 trillion (EUR 876 million) for the current global population of great whales.[6]

“This report presents some of the most comprehensive data to date on large scale movements of whales through the world's oceans. The emerging picture underscores the need for swift, concerted action and investment of resources from national governments, international bodies, local communities, industry and conservation groups like WWF to stop this underwater assault on whales and protect these critical blue corridors," said Dr. Margaret Kinnard, WWF Global Wildlife Practice Lead.

*Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction make up two-thirds of the Earth’s oceans, yet no overarching treaty exists to conserve vulnerable species and ecosystems in these waters.

Larissa Milo-Dale
Senior Marine Communications Officer, WWF European Policy Office
+32 483 26 20 86

Robyn Carmichael 
Creative Communications Lead, WWF Protecting Whales & Dolphins Initiative​
+64 28 425 9566

[1] Read, A. J., Drinker, P. & Northridge, S. Bycatch of marine mammals in U.S. and global fisheries. Conserv. Biol. 20, 163–169 (2006).

[3] WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme, Bycatch of critically endangered Baltic Sea harbour porpoise must stop, 16 May 2021, https://www.wwfbaltic.org/press-release/bycatch-of-critically-endangered-baltic-sea-harbour-porpoise-must-stop/ 

[4] Peltier H, Authier M, Caurant F, Dabin W, Daniel P, Dars C, Demaret F, Meheust E, Van Canneyt O, Spitz J and Ridoux V (2021) In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Identifying Spatiotemporal Co-occurrence of Bycaught Common Dolphins and Fisheries in the Bay of Biscay (NE Atlantic) From 2010 to 2019. Front. Mar. Sci. 8:617342. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.617342
[5] Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. United Nations at www.un.org/bbnj

[6] Ralph Chami, Cosimano, T., Fullenkamp, C., Oztosun, S., Chami, R., Cosimano, T., Fullenkamp, C. & Oztosun, S. Nature’s Solution to Climate Change. Finance and Development 56, 34–38 (2019).
Whales are encountering multiple and growing threats, a world-first satellite map and report reveal