New IAATO measures to protect Antarctic whales | Polarjournal
Humpback whales are among the most common whales sighted in the Antarctic Peninsula area. The slow swimming animals should be protected from collisions and disturbances. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

Whale populations around the Antarctic Peninsula have slowly increased in abundance again in recent decades. At the same time, however, the number of ships with tourists on board has also increased significantly. To ensure that the two factions can coexist, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has drawn up a catalog of measures that has been further expanded this season.

The temporal extension of so-called “Geofenced Areas” (GeoA), i.e. areas specifically designated on GPS maps where special rules are applied to protect marine mammals, is the most important measure in the IAATO catalog. The period is now scheduled from November 1 to May 30 for a total of 17 areas in the Gerlache Strait and around the South Shetland Islands. During this period, which de facto covers almost the entire tourist season, the areas are subject to a 10-knot speed limit, increased observation measures and recording of all whale sightings, including number, exact position and behavior.

The measures apply to all cetacean species seen in the Antarctic Peninsula area. In other regions, such as the Ross Sea (pictured), no such “geofenced areas” have been designated, at least not yet. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

Establishing such GeoAs is not in itself a novelty. In 2019, the IAATO had already decided to establish such areas on a trial basis in the Gerlache Strait, the region between Anvers and Brabant islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. “IAATO is committed to enhancing its practices to respond to new information and available data; in this case the growth of whale populations around the Antarctic Peninsula,” says IAATO Executive Director Gina Greer. In addition to the GeoAs, it was also decided in 2021 that within these zones, ships must not travel faster than 10 knots (just under 18.5 km/h), additional personnel must be on the bridge to keep an eye out for whales, and every encounter must be reported according to scientific principles. This should avoid collisions with the marine mammals. In addition, special training in whale watching and collision avoidance should be offered to the ship’s personnel.

Now that the data from previous seasons have been evaluated, the IAATO decided at its last General Assembly in Hamburg in May that the number of areas should be expanded to include the South Shetland Islands from Elephant Island to Deception. Because there the whales still find plenty of food such as krill, at least for the moment. However, research has recorded a decline in krill abundance in these regions in particular, and a concomitant decline in chinstrap penguins, which feed almost exclusively on krill. There is debate as to whether the increasing number of whales as food competitors is linked to this, or whether the decline in sea ice in the region plus rising water temperatures are the reasons.

When whales are observed with Zodiacs, safety distances are a normal procedure. But if the animals decide to approach the boats (whose engines are then idling), unique moments are created. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

The new measures are definitely necessary, as research by various national Antarctic programs has shown that humpback whales are once again appearing very frequently along the Antarctic Peninsula to feed on krill and fish throughout the summer. Fin and even blue whales have also been sighted more frequently again. At the same time, more than 430 voyages by ships carrying tourists have been reported by port authorities in Ushuaia for this season. Because the area of the Gerlache Strait is one of the most picturesque regions on the Antarctic Peninsula, but at the same time also very narrow, the risk of collision with marine mammals is at its highest there.

For the IAATO, the measures now deployed will be a further step towards protecting Antarctic wildlife. They will monitor them closely and, if necessary, expand them further. According to Gina Greer, “As we look towards the future and the challenges we will face, including environmental change, we will continue to evolve our practices further; investing strategically in research, technology and human capital to prepare appropriately.”

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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