Conserving Falklands’ whale populations: addressing data deficiencies for informed management


 
 

Welcome to the guest blog featuring Darwin Plus project DPLUS082, led by Falklands Conservation working to achieve greater protection for all baleen whale species found around the Falkland Islands. The project aims to improve the information available to decision-makers, and engage stakeholders regarding conservation and management considerations.

In this blog, find out just how the project has been able to protect these gentle giants and join us in celebrating the extraordinary achievement of the first ever Key Biodiversity Area in the Falklands for whales and the only one in the world for sei whales!

Keystone species receive Key Biodiversity Area protection

Every summer and autumn, sei whale blows are a common sight from the shores of the Falkland Islands, and residents and visitors alike will spend huge amounts of time watching these fantastic animals. Some whales are alone, and moving fast, whereas others are spotted in larger groups, staying in the area from anywhere between a couple of hours to a few days. However, this whale-watching experience is unusual as sei whales are more commonly found in deep, offshore waters, making these regular nearshore sightings at the Falkland Islands virtually unique.

Now, in a global first, the Falkland Islands have been listed as an incredibly important location for the enigmatic and endangered sei whale! This recognition comes in the form of a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), which is something that has been an area of interest for Falklands Conservation since systematic whale surveys began in 2017.

A sei whale spotted near the Falkland Islands coast, Credit – Caroline Weir

KBA status is awarded to regions which are supporting global biodiversity, with this status being awarded to many areas that are particularly important for threatened species. The recognition for the nearshore waters of the Falkland Islands to be a KBA for sei whales was driven by robust and extensive data collected from thousands of hours of Falklands Conservation surveys and data analysis. Excitingly, it is not only the first KBA for whales in the Falkland Islands, but the very first KBA for sei whales anywhere in the world! The new Inner Shelf Waters Key Biodiversity Area covers the whole of the Falkland Islands nearshore waters to 100m depth.

This acknowledgement is an important step in terms of marine conservation and management in this UK Overseas Territory. Whilst human marine activities in the Falkland Islands are relatively low compared to other regions in the world, who knows what the future might bring? Both oil exploration and industrial coastal salmon farming have been proposed for the Falkland Islands in recent years, and other already-present sectors may continue to grow. The recognition of these waters as a KBA will provide valuable information to ensure that Government and Industry are able to make the most environmentally-sound and sustainable decisions regarding the uses of these waters; for the long-term benefit of wildlife and also the important industries that rely on the natural environment.

Falklands Conservation’s whale work is run by Dr Caroline Weir, with the primary tool at her disposal being photo identification. From small boat surveys, photos can be taken of the fins and flanks of sei whales as they’re encountered on surveys, and the patterns of nicks, scars and colouration can be used to identify individual whales. In the five years of surveys, tens of thousands of photographs have been taken and now the photo ID catalogue of mature sei whales is now well over 500 individuals. This achievement is even more special when considering the inherent difficulties of studying sei whales; animals with distinct marks are very few and far between, with most whales showing very few markings. Additionally, sei whales are not as showy and flamboyant as some of their more famous cousins – they will often surface with a very shallow movement, showing almost none of their back, flanks, or flukes (tails) which could be used in the identification process. Finally, these whales are fairly uninterested in vessels, they can travel quickly through the water, turn sharply, and disappear on dives for long periods.

Falklands Conservation Whale project lead Caroline Weir photographing elusive sei whale for photo identification, Credit – Maria Taylor

Despite this, successful photographic “recaptures” have proven that individuals use different regions of the Falkland Islands throughout the summer and autumn months, and that some return year-on-year. A particular highlight was a distinctly marked whale, nicknamed Wonky by the team in the Falklands, being matched to a Brazilian ID catalogue. Wonky had been sighted off Rio de Janeiro six months before being seen in the Falklands Islands; one of the first clear-cut insights into global sei whale migration movements.

Darwin Plus have been supporting these surveys since 2019. Since the very first surveys, a number of new research tools have been added to the work. Audio recording devices were deployed underwater in Berkeley Sound and Falkland Sound to listen into the whales’ conversations, and to determine what they were up to even when they couldn’t be sighted by the survey boat. Biopsy sampling has also been introduced in the hopes of revealing how Falklands’ whales fit in with global populations and to give insight into the health and wellbeing of the individuals and populations.

Wonky, the sei whale identified in both the Falkland Islands six months after being spotted in the waters off Rio de Janeiro, Credit – Falklands Conservation

Importantly, the ongoing whale research has been heavily supported by the local community. It is fantastic for local people to share their waters with such captivating neighbours, and over 40 volunteers have taken part on surveys, with many more reporting their whale sightings or signing up for an integrated Citizen Science Shore-Watch project. The Facebook Page for Falklands Conservation’s whale project has over 2,400 followers – not bad, considering the entire population of the Falkland Islands is only a little over 3,000! During the process of applying for KBA status, local stakeholders including Government and Industry representatives were also engaged and supported the KBA application. With public support, this new KBA and the data behind it offer the Falkland Islands an incredible opportunity to manage our waters for the long-term benefits of these fantastic animals, their key habitats, and to support sustainable human activities for future generations.

Dr Caroline Weir, Sei Whale Project lead for Falklands Conservation commented, “We are incredibly proud of achieving this Key Biodiversity Area for endangered sei whales, which is the culmination of five years of pioneering and challenging field research that has really highlighted the importance of the Falkland Islands for this poorly-known species. It’s a privilege to work in an area where whale populations appear to be thriving, and fantastic to now see that work translating into global recognition and contributing to the future conservation of these amazing animals.”

Written by Michelle Winnard. For more information on project DPLUS082 led by Falklands Conservation working in the Falkland Islands please click here.

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