In a momentous stride towards marine conservation, Roland Royer, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, Blue and Green Economy, has formally announced the creation of the world’s inaugural sperm whale reserve in Dominica. This groundbreaking initiative is set to tackle the documented decline in sperm whale families documented on island between 2008 and 2009.
As emphasised by Royer, Dominicans are fortunate to share their waters with over 50 sperm whale families along the serene west coasts, considering these majestic creatures as fellow citizens. However, regrettably, across the vast oceans, the world’s largest mammals are exhibiting signs of distress. Disturbing records of mass die-offs, mysterious illnesses, and puzzling changes in behaviour unmistakably highlight the pressing need for a lifeline to support and protect these magnificent beings.
“We have been listening, and we’ve heard the cries for help,” he declared. He stressed that in recent years, the local sperm whales have unfortunately not received the respect they rightly deserve. The surge in maritime activities has led to frequent collisions with ships, entanglement in plastic debris, and exposure to other human-related threats, all of which have adverse effects on their habitats.
Therefore, the Dominica Sperm Whale Reserve is poised to make history as the inaugural marine protected area exclusively dedicated to preserving sperm whales and the vital marine habitat crucial for their flourishing along the pristine west coast of Dominica.
By establishing a secure haven for our sperm whale families, the minister believes that Dominica is not only assisting these magnificent creatures and the ocean but is also actively contributing to the enhancement and perpetuation of life below water. This initiative aims to safeguard the local economy, providing benefits that reach the fishermen, tour operators, and people worldwide, all while fortifying resilience against the impacts of climate change.
Francine Baron, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD), conveyed that the reserve is projected to cover an area of approximately 788 square kilometres, roughly equivalent to the size of Dominica itself. The reserve will extend from just below the Portsmouth area to the southern region of Dominica. Baron emphasised the intention to establish a corridor for large cruise ships and cargo vessels, facilitating their approach to the port of Roseau. This corridor is anticipated to span approximately three nautical miles.
She emphasised that as Dominica strives to become the world’s first climate-resilient nation, officials have crafted a resilience framework that not only focuses on bolstering the resilience of institutional systems, physical structures, and the economy but also places significant importance on the resilience of ecosystems. This involves initiatives such as expanding healthy coral reef coverage, enlarging protected forest areas, and promoting sustainable agricultural practices.
“We are very fortunate to have over 50 families of sperm whales, who choose Dominica waters as their home. We have lived in harmony with the whales for several decades, and consider them as part of us. And they have also formed an important component of our tourism product,” she said.
In the upcoming draft legislation, a dedicated sperm whale reserve office is set to be established, led by a senior whale officer, with additional reserve rangers appointed. The legislation will include the formulation of a comprehensive management plan for the reserve, outlining specific protocols for navigation within the reserve area.
“This is not expected to affect small boats. It is expected perhaps to only restrict boats of the size of about 60 feet. And the intention is to create an area that will provide or reduce the likelihood of the sperm whales being hit by a ship,” she said.
“It’s also going to be good for fishers as well because usually, they’ve had a challenge in the past where the large ships have dislodged their Fish Abrogating Devices (FADs). So this will reduce the likelihood of their FADs being destroyed by those ships as well,” the CEO added.
She further emphasised that the legislation aims to establish a more organised approach to whale watching and swimming with the whales. The goal is to ensure that everyone can enjoy these activities without causing distress to the whales and to guarantee that our observation of them does not disrupt their natural behaviour.
The legislation aims to implement clear protocols for approaching and departing the mammals. There are also plans to institute a dedicated fund for the sperm whale reserve, accepting contributions from government, and philanthropic sources, as well as through permits and licensing for the reserve. The ultimate objective is to make the reserve financially self-sufficient, allowing it to operate independently with minimal additional costs to the state. Baron also mentioned preliminary discussions regarding potential fee adjustments for engaging with the whales.
Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Founder of Pristine Seas, conveyed that during their assessment of habitats spanning from shallow to deep, and from inshore to offshore, he and his team were informed about the alarming status of a critically endangered sperm whale population. Sala pointed out the global critical endangerment of the species but underscored that this particular population, comprising just a few hundred, is exclusive to Dominica and the Eastern Caribbean.
“So it qualifies as the most endangered level within the Red List of the International Union of Conservation of Nature,” he highlighted. “So it is already in critical shape. Studies show that the population has been declining over the last 20 years. So there is something to be done to preserve and restore these incredible and unique populations that live only here in these waters.”
The marine ecologist, conservationist, and ocean advocate expressed his admiration for Dominica’s comprehensive plan and strategy for climate resilience, aspiring to become the world’s first climate-resilient nation. Additionally, he highlighted the integral role of sperm whales in Dominica’s climate resilience, as these marine creatures actively contribute to carbon sequestration in the deep ocean.
He further acknowledged that Dominica has the opportunity to create a world-class operation capable of generating revenue. This revenue, Sala notes, could play a crucial role in offsetting costs, ultimately leading to the Reserve becoming self-sustaining—empowering the whales to contribute financially to their own preservation.
During their visit to Dominica in November and December of last year, he and his team conducted a scientific expedition and created the film ‘Dominica, the Nature Island’, which premiered last night. As indicated, there will be a public screening for schools on Wednesday at 2 p.m., followed by free evening screenings for the general public.