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NOAA, France Partner in Historic Effort to Protect North Atlantic Humpback Whales

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(Credit: AAMP)
NOAA and France's Protected Areas Agency have signed a "sister sanctuary" agreement to support the protection of endangered humpback whales that migrate annually more than 3,000 miles between NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the Massachusetts coast and Agoa Marine Mammal Sanctuary in the Caribbean's French Antilles.

The agreement will help improve humpback whale recovery in the North Atlantic by enhancing management coordination efforts between the two sanctuaries. This effort will help improve knowledge about humpbacks in the Atlantic and the threats they face from both natural and man-made changes to their environment. Both sanctuaries provide critical support for the same population of whales, which spend spring and summer in the rich feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank before heading south to the warmer waters of the Caribbean Sea in late fall to mate and give birth to their young. The French Antilles islands are at the Caribbean's eastern edge.

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(Credit: NOAA)
As sister sanctuaries, the two sites will explore new avenues for collaborative education, scientific and management efforts, including joint-research and monitoring programs. NOAA anticipates the relationship will be crucial to the long-term conservation of the North Atlantic humpback whale population, as well as to the development of future cooperative agreements with other countries.

This new agreement builds on an effort begun in 2006 when the world's first sister sanctuary initiative focused on trans-boundary humpback whales and their critical habitats was launched between Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary and the Dominican Republic. Another agreement signed in July between Stellwagen Bank and the government of Bermuda also strives to help protect the species along its migration route from the Gulf of Maine to the Caribbean Sea through cooperation on scientific and educational programs.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 842 square miles of ocean, stretching between Cape Ann and Cape Cod. Renowned for its remarkable productivity, the sanctuary supports a rich diversity of marine life, including 22 species of marine mammals, more than 53 species of seabirds, in excess of 80 species of fishes, and hundreds of marine invertebrates.

map of stellwagen bank sanctuary
(Credit: NOAA)

"The expansion of our sister sanctuary work to include the French Antilles will play a powerful role in protecting endangered humpback whales, and the opportunity for international cooperation in marine conservation is invaluable," said Daniel J. Basta, director, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "This agreement has the potential to improve our scientific knowledge, enhance our management ability and increase awareness of the sister sanctuary program to other nations interested in such a partnership—all of which are benefits that extend far beyond the boundaries of the sanctuaries involved."

Encompassing 59 square miles of ocean, Agoa Sanctuary is located in the eastern Caribbean Sea. "Its area and its location give a special responsibility to France and the local Governments of the French Antilles in terms of regional cooperation not only between Caribbean islands and countries but broader in order to make consistent our actions with the ecology of marine mammals" said Olivier Laroussinie, Director of the French Marines Protected Area Agency.

map of agoa sanctuary
(Credit: AAMP)

The Caribbean Sea is a special habitat for feeding, reproduction and migration of marine mammals. Twenty-one species have been identified in the French Antilles waters. With the creation of Agoa Marine Mammals Sanctuary, France wanted to contribute to make a model of the Caribbean region for the marine mammals protection and the sustainable development. The EEZ of the French Antilles are now an area of dialogue between all the stakeholders in order to set up an harmonious model of development and of conservation of the marine mammals critical habitats Agoa is based on an innovative governance system bringing together the local governments of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélémy Islands and their environmental departments, the French MPA Agency,the French Ministry of Environment, the socio-economic partners, environmental NGOs but as well University and scientific bodies.

Basta and Laroussinie signed a memorandum of understanding creating the sister sanctuary partnership. The agreement contributes to the implementation of the United Nations Environment Programme's Marine Mammal Action Plan for the Caribbean region, which recognizes the importance of protecting critical humpback whale habitats as part of a regional corridor. The agreement will be recognized at the Second international Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas November 7-11, 2011, in Fort-de-France, Martinique in the French Antilles.

"We share whales with other nations, just as we share the responsibility for protecting these spectacular animals," said Craig MacDonald, Stellwagen Bank superintendent. "Our broadest mandate is to engender a new discussion in our society about the importance of protecting trans-boundary species, the special places where they live, and our responsibility as global stewards."

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