Falklands confirmed as world’s first Sei whale hotspot | Polarjournal
Sei whales are baleen whales and are smaller than fin whales with a body length of up to 20 meters and a weight of 45 tons. They were heavily hunted in the Southern Ocean until the 1970s, which is why they are still classified as “critically endangered” today. Photo: Dr. Michael Wenger

For more than five years, scientists from Falklands Conservation observed and studied the barely explored Sei whales in the waters around the Falkland Islands. As a result of the study, the coastal waters of the Falkland Islands were recognized as the world’s first Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) for Sei whales – a milestone in whale conservation and an important tool for ecological and sustainable management of this marine region.

Dr Caroline Weir, Whale Conservation Officer at Falklands Conservationand study leader, and her research team have been able to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge thanks to their uniquely comprehensive data collection. The Sei whales could be observed particularly frequently in the southern summer and autumn off the Falkland Islands – a unique opportunity for the whale researchers. They went out as often as possible in small motorboats and spent thousands of hours on windy seas trying to find the whales and take photos of their dorsal fins and flanks. Over time, this filled their identification catalogue, which now contains tens of thousands of photos and with the help of which they have been able to identify over 500 individuals so far. Using the data, the team was able to show that the same Sei whales return to the Falkland Islands repeatedly over a period of years, and that the same individuals remain in the region for several weeks and months within a year – indicating that the area is an important resource for the Sei whales.

Not only the small size of the global population but also the way of life of the Sei whales has probably contributed to the fact that very little is known about these animals. They are found worldwide, but prefer to live in deep offshore waters. However, we know almost nothing about their migrations or their life in the open ocean in general until today. Photo: Dr. Michael Wenger

After the first season it was already clear to the researchers that the whales spend the summer months off the Falkland Islands mainly because of the good food supply. Faecal samples told them that the animals feed mainly on lobster krill, which is abundant in this region.

In addition, the scientists now regularly take biopsy samples of the skin and adipose tissue in order to determine the genetic diversity and the relationship between local and global populations on the one hand and to obtain information on the health status of the animals on the other.

The Sei whale project began in 2017 with a pilot study of the distribution, population size, and ecology of whales in Berkeley Sound in East Falkland. In subsequent years, this data collection has continued and expanded to include collecting genetic samples and recording whale sounds underwater. Photo: Dr. Caroline Weir, Falklands Conservation

The ambitious research programme was completed by passive acoustic monitoring using hydrophones (underwater microphones). The recordings together with the observations from the boat prove that the whales are in the area at least from January to May. In addition, a count in February/March 2018 revealed an abundance of global significance with approximately 900 individuals off the west coast of the islands.

While the various aspects of this comprehensive research project make relatively easy reading, the efforts behind them were enormously challenging for the team. On the one hand, it is a real game of patience to spot the fast and sleek swimmers on the water – one reason why so little is known about Sei whales – and on the other hand, countless hours on a small boat in often difficult weather were anything but comfortable.

The world’s first Sei whale hotspot: the entire inner shelf waters of the Falkland Islands have been declared a key biodiversity area. Map: Falklands Conservation

For the research team, however, only one thing mattered: to collect as much data as possible in order to learn more about the lives of the highly endangered Sei whales and to be able to better protect them locally and globally. And the efforts were worth it! The entire inner shelf waters of the Falkland Islands down to a depth of 100 metres have been officially declared a hotspot for Sei whales, the world’s first ever for whales: Falkland Islands Inner Shelf Waters Key Biodiversity Area for Sei whales.

“We are incredibly proud to have reached this key area for the biodiversity of the endangered Sei whales. It is the culmination of five years of ground-breaking and challenging fieldwork that has really highlighted the importance of the Falkland Islands for this little-known species. It’s a privilege to work in an area where whale populations seem to be thriving, and it’s fantastic to see this work now translating into global recognition and contributing to the future conservation of these amazing animals.”

Dr Caroline Weir, Head of Whale Research at Falklands Conservation
Sei whale populations seem to be slowly recovering from decades of whaling that lasted until the 1970s. Today, however, they face other threats such as collisions with ships, reduced food availability, pollutants, and others. This makes the work of Falklands Conservation, which led to the recognition of the Falkland Islands’ shelf waters as a Key Biodiversity Area, all the more important. Photo: Dr. Caroline Weir, Falklands Conservation

Local people on the islands have also helped, reporting many sightings and providing photos to add to the trove of data. And thanks to widespread support, including from local government and industry, the new Key Biodiversity Area offers a great opportunity for whale conservation and is all the more significant given the possible expansion of existing human activities or the implementation of new ventures such as oil exploration or industrial salmon farming. Government and industry now have the essential knowledge to make their management as ecological and sustainable as possible and to protect the natural resources of the Falkland Islands.

The video offers an insight into the lives of Sei and Southern right whales and the research of Falklands Conservation. Subtitles in German are available. Video: Falklands Conservation

Falklands Conservation ‘s five-year project has been supported by many groups, including the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Further funding came from the EU BEST 2.0 programme, the Falkland Islands Government Environmental Studies Budget and the UK Government’s Darwin Plus programme.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link zur Webseite von Falklands Conservation: https://falklandsconservation.com

Link to study: Weir, C.R., Taylor, M., Jelbes, P.A.Q., Stanworth, A. and Hammond, P.S. (2021). Distribution and abundance of sei whales off the west coast of the Falkland Islands. Marine Mammal Science, https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12784

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