Monitoring, Mapping, and Modeling Interactions Between Human Uses of the Mediterranean and its Gentle Sea Giants

Whales have long captured our attention, first as a source of food and fuel, and more recently as iconic species that drive small, but thriving tourism ventures. Unfortunately, human beings have not always acted in the best interests of whales or even in a way that helps to protect the long term economic value that comes from healthy, living whales. While thoughts of whales and whaling often turn to the world’s colder seas, many people are unaware that our own, warm Mediterranean Sea is home to a host of whales and dolphins, including Fin and Sperm Whales.

Mediterranean whales are known to have significant existence value and in many places contribute to tourism directly through whale and dolphin watching tourism, and indirectly when coastal visitors see them from shore. Most whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean live within areas of significant importance for the biodiversity and fisheries management. Yet, despite these protection measures, Mediterranean whales also are under threat from human activities and environmental problems (e.g. ship strikes, fixed gear fishing, overfishing of their food sources, and underwater noise). Our work will provide better spatial information about whales so managers can reduce human impacts and improve whale management.

ECOPOTENTIAL will use Earth Observation along with in situ data to assess and model the socio-economic benefits attributed to whale watching tourism in the Mediterranean by assessing: 1) the state and change of whale populations in the Mediterranean, 2) the role of humans in this system as: i) a instruments whose presence can threat the whale populations (e.g. temperature changes and impacts of fishing); and ii) as people who derive benefits from these grand creatures – like benefits from tourism and whale watching activities.

With new high resolution satellite imagery, whales can be seen from space (“Whales from Space: Counting Southern Right Whales by Satellite” (2015) Fretwell PT., Staniland IJ, Forcada J. PlosOne e88655). To date, such satellite images have been used in Argentina to monitor Right Whales. Ours is the first project to attempt to do the same in the Mediterranean, with a special focus on the Pelagos Sanctuary for Marine Mammals- the first international marine protected area that was created specifically to protect whales and dolphins. Similarly, we will collaborate with ongoing initiatives, such as the RepCET to monitor human activities like shipping, boating or tourism that have an impact in the population of whales.

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One goal of the project is to use satellite data to improve other types of information in order to understand the current distribution of whales. Working with our partners at the Tethys Institute and IOC-UNESCO’s OBIS SeaMap, we will combine satellite data with data from aerial surveys, whale watching cruises and direct citizen science. This more complete set of data will also help us monitor where whales go during the course of the year and how patterns of migration change over time. These data also will allow us to improve habitat models for whales that have been developed by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission.