The oceans are the largest ecosystem on earth, along with the seas they cover over 70% of our planet. Indispensable to life, they provide us with 55% of the oxygen we breath, recycle 90% of the planet’s carbon dioxide and regulate our climate. Oceans are also a major source for the fishing, medical and tourism industries therefore contributing to countries' economies.
Yet, less than 20% of our oceans have been studied, making it an ecosystem less known than the moon or Mars !
Cetaceans are the group of marine mammals that is composed of whales, dolphins and porpoises. This group includes the largest animal in the world (the blue whale) and the "highest" predator on Earth (the sperm whale). These species share many traits with humans such as breathing air, giving birth to live youngs, long gestation periods, complex social structures and a high degree of intelligence.
It has already been shown that some species have a social culture, that they can learn to use tools, experience pleasure during reproduction, or speak different languages within the same species.
Cetaceans are worth protecting !
The value of large cetaceans has been estimated by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), together with the Great Whale Conservancy (GWC). Whales bring benefits to local populations through the tourism industry, they also and above all perform an essential ecological work. Indeed, cetaceans allow an absorption of CO2 equivalent to 4 times the Amazon rainforest absorption, thus representing the most important lever against climate change. They also are a keystone in the production of phytoplankton which provides most of the oxygen on Earth. The estimate of this contribution is over $ 1 trillion for all large whales per year, or more than $ 2 millions per year per whale. Saving them means therefore saving our planet !
Great whales (gathering baleen and sperm whales) are considered as ecosystem engineers : with their high metabolic demands and large populations sizes before whale hunting, they strongly influence marine ecosystems. Indeed, they are considerable consumers of fish and invertebrates; as well as prey to other large-bodied predators; but also reservoirs and sprinklers for nutrients. At last, these massive animal carcasses end up as important habitats providing detrital energy in the deep sea.
IN THE CARIBBEAN
In the Caribbean, at least 33 species of cetaceans have been documented, more than a third of the world's cetacean species (90 species in 2020).
This group brings together 7 species of mysticetes (baleen whales like the blue whale for example) and 26 odontocetes species (toothed cetaceans like sperm whales, orcas and dolphins).
The Caribbean region is an essential habitat for the majority of these species, especially for reproduction and food. Research on marine mammals is quite limited by financial gaps as well as a rough field, hardly accessible. Although some species are already classified as endangered, data is still largely insufficient for most of them. As a consequence, it is possible that some populations are already in a critical state without us knowing it and therefore without being able to act to conserve them.
UNIQUE CULTURAL HERITAGE
Marine mammals in the Caribbean represent a unique cultural heritage
that we cannot afford to lose !
In humans, each population represents not only human lives, but also a cultural heritage as a technique, an art or a language. Then the extinction of a population doesn’t just imply the loss of human lives, but the loss of a culture (we would not like to lose the Caribbean culture of reggae, creole or rhum for instance !).
The populations of cetaceans present in our waters meet the same mechanism : the death of an individual or a population implies a loss of cultural knowledge for the population or the species. For instance, the extinction of a sperm whale population does not come down to the death of several individuals among the world stock, but to the loss of a cultural heritage such as a type of predation, a unique communication pattern or a specialized behavior in the Caribbean zone and which is passed down from generation to generation.
For centuries, man has considered the ocean and its resources as a vast, limitless reserve. The Caribbean manatee, for example, was described in the past in Guadeloupe as being present “in such abundance that no exploitation can possibly decimate it”… This same species has now gone completely extinct from the Lesser Antilles, mostly because of overfishing.
Humans are the source of multiple threats that endanger our cetacean populations:
Ship strikes can induce injuries or even sudden death;
Direct and indirect fishing, bycatch due to gillnets for instance;
Chemical pollution, with heavy metal contaminants releases or other pollutants known to be bio-accumulative;
Waste pollution, whether it comes from common terrestrial wastes or from abandoned or floating fishing equipment such as lost FADs in which cetaceans can get entangled;
Noise pollution: all anthropogenic noises, such as ship engines, sonar, drilling rigs or other human-made sounds, all form a source of critical or even lethal disturbance for these animals.
Marine mammals depend on acoustics to move, communicate or hunt for food. A polluted soundscape can for example, prevent an animal from detecting the presence of an approaching vessel and thus generate collisions, sonar waves can inflict lethal wounds in the inner ear or even induce decompression incident…
MARINE MAMMALS KNOW NO BOUNDARIES
Cetaceans travel long distances and use wide areas, their distribution often includes several countries. At a cetacean scale, Caribbean is a unique space that they have used for millions of years without other limits than physical parameters such as temperature, depth or terrestrial magnetism. It is therefore up to us to adapt together and unite by breaking down our barriers to protect them despite our borders, different laws, languages and cultures in each of our territories.
SUSTAINABILITY IS KEY FOR SUCCES
Increasing the connectivity between individuals and organizations in the region requires continuity for successful cooperation between islands. Organizations undertaking quality field and policy work exist on many islands, but are often isolated. Currently, there is no organization exclusively dedicated to the conservation of cetaceans in the Wider Caribbean Region, further hindering collaboration between islands. Projects aimed at enhancing collaboration within the Region are limited in time and funding, and are not a permanent solution to the need to connect marine mammal conservation initiatives. Oftentimes, these short-term projects enlist individuals from outside the Region who may be less vested in longer-term outcomes and that results in temporary capacity-building or migration of institutional knowledge and skill sets upon completion.
The situation thus echoes the myth of Sisyphus who was condemned to carry his rock indefinitely to the summit. In the Caribbean, the conservation efforts for megafauna starts all over from the beginning after every beneficial initiative, just like Sisyphus.
This is why the Caribbean Cetacean Society rises to fill the gap, break the cycle and perpetuate a collaborative effort to join all the territories !