A whale-safe ocean is good for people

WWF Oceans
5 min readFeb 15, 2024

Whale migration is something we should not take for granted. These instinct-driven journeys are crucial for the species that make them, and support ocean health. But the risks are growing, with consequences for people and nature.

By Chris Johnson, Global Lead, WWF Protecting Whales & Dolphins Initiative

Epic journeys

I have one of the best jobs in the world, leading WWF’s whale and dolphin conservation efforts. Every day, this involves wearing a different hat: working with the top scientists in the field, listening to coastal communities, negotiating with industry leaders and governments. It’s all in pursuit of solutions that protect whales and their most important ocean areas. Their long-term conservation matters in ways we are only beginning to better understand.

Chris Johnson on a research mission in Antarctica. © Ted Grambeau Photography 2023 Intrepid

Whales without borders

Whale migration routes frequently cross the boundaries from one country’s national waters to another’s and include the international high seas. WWF and partners are working to better understand, map and protect these “blue corridors” because they tell a rich story about prey distribution, ocean currents, and whale habitat preferences for feeding, socializing and resting. Understanding the where, when and why of migration helps us design effective conservation and management efforts.

In recognition of the interconnectedness of whales and other animals, the United Nations in 1979 created the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), calling for global collaboration to protect these populations. Signatories to the CMS acknowledge that nations are the protectors of the migratory species that live within or pass through their land, rivers or seas, and commit to international cooperation for their conservation.

© Darren Jew / WWF

Marine migrations are becoming more dangerous

Climate change, ship traffic, underwater noise and fishing activity are impacting whales along multiple points on their migration routes.

The first-ever State of the World’s Migratory Species report was launched in February 2024, looking at the 1,189 animal species recognized by CMS parties as needing international protection, plus analysis linked to over 3,000 additional non-CMS migratory species.

For me and many colleagues, the report was of great concern. Some key issues highlighted include:

- Extinction. The global extinction risk is increasing for CMS-listed species and all migratory species.

- Lack of ocean protection. Analysis shows nearly 10,000 of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas are important for CMS-listed migratory species, but more than half (by area) are not designated as protected or conserved areas. 58% of monitored sites important for CMS-listed species are under threat due to human activities.

- Impacts of fisheries and overexploitation. Seven in 10 CMS species are affected by overexploitation. Over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed each year because of fisheries bycatch, and there is growing intentional catch of small cetaceans for fishing bait.

- Underwater noise pollution and shipping. Toothed whales use echolocation to navigate, communicate and find prey. Sustained exposure to noise can force migrating animals to alter their behaviour, impact feeding behaviour, cause injury, or if loud enough, even kill. Research shows that harbour porpoises and killer whales spend less time feeding when noisy vessels are present. Beaked whales are also extremely sensitive to high-intensity sounds, such as military sonar, which may play a role in fatal stranding events.

- Climate change. Changing temperatures can cause migratory species to arrive too early, too late, or not at all. Key impacts will be on the prey species of cetaceans, especially in the polar regions. Narwhals are particularly vulnerable due to shrinking ice habitat.

Connectivity and collaboration

The CMS report finds the “conservation status of migratory species overall is deteriorating. Species listed for protection under CMS, despite positive successes, reflect this broader trend. The conservation needs and threats to migratory species need to be addressed with greater effectiveness, at a broader scale, and with renewed determination.”

Experts worldwide are collaborating more to create and share data, mapping current protected areas, key biodiversity areas, biodiversity presence, global species distribution maps, and important marine mammal areas. Such work is essential to informing effective conservation decision making.

In 2022, WWF and partners produced “Protecting Blue Corridors,” which describes whale migratory patterns. It draws on a conservation practice already widely used on land known as “connectivity conservation” and applies it to the world’s seas. Connectivity conservation is a concept that recognizes that species survive and adapt better when their habitats are managed and protected as large, interconnected networks.

We mapped the complex collaboration that needs to happen now across a range of agreements to address whale conservation in the 21st century. One new tool nearly within our grasp as nations work to fast-track ratification is the High Seas Treaty, an agreement that will make it possible to connect and protect blue corridors for whales and other marine species across international and national waters. We also have renewed global commitments to address the threats to biodiversity and protect 30% of our ocean by 2030 through the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

Apart from such global agreements, regional coalitions are showing real leadership. In 2021, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia committed to the creation of a 500,000 km2 fishing-free corridor. The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor would be the world’s largest transboundary marine protected area and could provide vital protection to the migratory routes of whales, sharks, sea turtles and manta rays. For some species, like North Atlantic Right whales, technology solutions such as “on demand” fishing removes the risk of entanglement in fishing lines and is showing promising signs.

Every time I get back on the water to advance research to understand and protect whales, I feel like I am seeing old friends and I am relieved they’ve safely survived a treacherous journey over vast distances. It’s something I don’t take for granted. Each year, our journeys bring us back to the same special places, and then we go our separate ways. We have the tools to make these migrations safer for whales, and in the process protect our life-sustaining ocean.

Follow Chris Johnson on X and Instagram: @earthocean

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WWF Oceans

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