ASCOBANS – Conserving Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas
Paper prepared by the ASCOBANS Secretariat for the meeting of the Regional Seas Programmes and Action Plans (Monaco, 6 – 11 November)
1) The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS) was concluded in 1991 under the auspices of the “Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals” (UNEP/CMS). ASCOBANS came into force on 29 March 1994. Currently eight nations (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom) are Parties to the Agreement. The most recent signatory was Finland, who acceded to the Agreement in September 1999. Other Range States participate actively in the work of ASCOBANS and the accession of further states to the Agreement is expected in the not too distant future. These nations share the common concern of achieving and maintaining a favourable conservation status for small cetaceans in the Agreement area1. The term “small cetaceans” is defined by Article 1.2 (a), according to which the Agreement covers any species, subspecies or population of toothed whales Odontoceti, except the sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus.
The Conservation and Management Plan (CMP) annexed to the Agreement sets out five priority areas for action:
These areas coincide largely with the five “areas of concentration” defined by UNEP’s Marine Mammals Action Plan (MMAP). Thus, Policy Formulation, the first area defined by the MMAP, is addressed by the first point of the CMP. Protective Measures, and Improvement of Law and its Application, the MMAP’s second and fourth areas of concentration are covered by the first and fourth points of the CMP,. The CMP’s second and third points correspond to the MMAP’s third area of concentration, Improvement of Scientific Knowledge. The MMAP’s fifth area of concentration, Enhancement of Public Understanding, corresponds to the fifth point of the CMS.
2) Incidental entanglement of cetaceans in fishing gear, so-called by-catch, is considered the most important threat to porpoise and dolphin populations throughout the ASCOBANS Area. While cetaceans are no longer deliberately hunted in this region, thousands are killed each year in bycatch. According to an estimate by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), more than 4400 harbour porpoises, which is the most abundant species covered by the agreement, are killed each year in bottom-set gill nets in the North Sea alone. In some areas, like the Skagerrak, annual bycatch is likely to exceed 4% of the population. This situation requires immediate action. Bycatch must be significantly reduced. Otherwise the high mortality coupled with relatively low reproduction rates will cause a continued decline of porpoise populations and make their recovery impossible.
In addition to bycatch, cetaceans in the ASCOBANS area are also subjected to the potentially adverse effects of marine pollution and acoustic disturbance. Hazardous substances, such as heavy metals and organic pollutants, accumulate on their way through the food chain and reach highest levels in the body tissues of marine mammals, affecting their health status. Recent scientific studies provide evidence that the negative effects of acoustic disturbance on cetaceans may be far more severe than heretofore known. These threats also can only be addressed effectively by international co-operation.
3) The decisions and resolutions adopted by the 7th Meeting of the Advisory Committee (Bruges, Belgium, 13–16 March 2000) and the 3rd Meeting of Parties (Bristol, UK, 26 – 28 July 2000) bear witness to the continued determination of ASCOBANS to meet these challenges. ASCOBANS endeavours to address these issues in a number of ways, taking into account that the objective of cetacean conservation in the Baltic and North Sea area can only be achieved in concert with other relevant regional organisations such as OSPARCOM, HELCOM and the IBSFC.
ASCOBANS is actively striving to tackle the problem of bycatch. The Third Meeting of Parties to ASCOBANS passed a resolution addressing this pressing and complex issue. Resolution No. 3, concerning incidental take of small cetaceans, sets a clear limit for incidental bycatch. Following the advice of the IWC/ASCOBANS Working Group on harbour porpoises, the Meeting defined “unacceptable interactions” as being a total anthropogenic removal above 1.7% of the best available estimate of abundance and set the intermediate precautionary objective of reducing bycatches to less than 1% of the best available population estimate.
A report focussing on bycatch mitigation measures applicable to the Agreement area has been commissioned by ASCOBANS. This report should be finalized by December 2000 and will subsequently be considered at the national level, allowing Parties to report on progress to the 8th meeting of the ASCOBANS Advisory Committee in April 2001.
ASCOBANS is keenly aware of the urgent need for action concerning the Baltic harbour porpoise populations. This issue was considered both by the 7th Meeting of the Advisory Committee and the Third Meeting of Parties to ASCOBANS. The ASCOBANS Baltic Discussion Group, tasked with considering research needs necessary to clarify the status of harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea area, is likely to finalise its work by the end of this year. The elaboration of a recovery plan for harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea is high on the ASCOBANS agenda. A workshop aimed at drafting this action plan is currently being planned. It should bring together a wide range of experts and stakeholders, such as cetacean biologists, fishery managers, experts for fishing techniques and fishermen’s organisations.
Other resolutions dealt inter alia with disturbance (Res. No. 4), monitoring, status and population studies (Res. No 5) and educational and promotional activities (Res. No. 6).
In co-operation with other international organisations such as OSPARCOM and HELCOM, ASCOBANS is working to achieve a reduction of hazardous substances in the marine environment.
1 The Agreement area is defined as follows: “Area of the Agreement” means the marine environment of the Baltic and North Seas, as delimited to the north-east by the shores of the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland; to the south- west by latitude 48 30 N and longitude 5 W; to the north-west by longitude 5 W and a line drawn through the following points: latitude 60 N/longitude 5 W; latitude 61 N/longitude 4 W and latitude 62 N/longitude 3 W; to the north by latitude 62 N; and including the Kattegat and the Sound and Belt passages but excluding the waters between Cape Wrath and St Anthony Head. (cf. Article 1.2 (a))
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