Mobile marine species conservation: Current challenges

Dr Lissa Batey
Living Seas Officer, The Wildlife Trusts, The Kiln, Waterside, Mather Road, Newark, NG24 1WT

T: 01752 484311

The seas around the UK are home to a biologically diverse array of marine species and habitats. Of the large marine megafauna, we have 29 species of whale, dolphin, porpoise (known collectively as cetaceans) and the second largest shark in the world – the basking shark.

Historical records show that whale, dolphin, porpoise and basking shark populations are significantly lower than they once were. Today, thanks to ever increasing development of the marine environment, the array of potential threats is even greater. Conserving whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks requires a knowledge and understanding of their life history, population ecology, migration routes, breeding and mortality. Direct measures to reduce the impacts of fishing, drilling or pile driving on mobile species are reasonably well accepted. But spatial protection, such as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), have always been considered controversial.

In general, MPAs alone are unlikely to be an appropriate conservation tool for animals which frequently range across large areas of sea. However, there is increasing evidence that MPAs in areas of high productivity can be important for specific life stages such as mating, pupping or nursing, or activities such as feeding, and if they fit into a framework of ecosystem-based management, they can contribute to the protection of wide-ranging species. Perhaps more important is the protection which an ecologically coherent network can give these species across their ranges – a benefit often overlooked or ignored.

In a world where not only is marine conservation radically changing, but plans for development are also on the increase we need to ensure that these ocean giants are not forgotten. We have the legislation and the power to wield those measures, but sadly, we are yet to do so. If we are to achieve a well-managed and ecologically coherent network of MPAs, and Good Environmental Status, we must not forget the top predators of our marine environment.