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Breaking barriers for whales and dolphins at the Convention of Migratory Species

Many species of whales, dolphins and porpoises undertake long journeys, encountering human-made obstacles along the way. Danger lurks in various forms from fishing nets to harpoons, underwater noise to chemical and plastic pollution. I’ve just returned from a gathering of global scientists trying to find ways to allow them to travel freely.

Species without borders

A whale or dolphin might travel from one hemisphere to another or begin their day in the waters of one country and end it somewhere else. Unlike us, they don’t own passports, nor do they have to worry about navigating the concept of borders. For these migratory species, it’s the barriers that we humans place on their freedom that impacts them the most.

Humpback whale
Humpback whales are experts when it comes to travelling and devote huge portions of their time to being on the move. © Vanessa Mignon

Navigating the threats

So, what are we doing about it? The Convention on Migratory Species, or CMS, is the organisation under which 133 countries (otherwise known as ‘Parties’) come together to protect migrating avian, terrestrial and aquatic species. We participate at this highest global level to provide expert advice and recommendations and to call for actions that will protect whales and dolphins.

You can imagine the magnitude of the task – but it couldn’t be more important.

The plans established under CMS are implemented on a daily basis, however, the 133 member countries come together every three years (at the Conference of the Parties – COP) to evaluate the conservation status of migrating species, the threats they face, and to agree on strategies to help improve the situation for the most threatened. In these meetings, we determine which species are CMS-listed, indicating their placement on the Appendices. These species could be added to Appendix l, offering them the highest level of protection, or to Appendix ll, which signals the need for cross-border collaboration to enhance and ensure their conservation.

Humpback whale (megaptera novaengliae) A baby humpback piggybacking on its mother. Tonga

Can you help protect these magnificent beings?

A race against time

I’ve just returned from a meeting of the CMS scientific committee – a collective of scientists from all over the world who advise the governments of the member nations. It started on a somber note. The global risk of extinction is on the rise, and the numbers of all the species CMS is concerned about, and all migratory species are declining.

Since 1970, the fish populations recognized by the CMS as needing help have decreased by 90%! Each migratory fish, bird or mammal plays a pivotal role in its own environment and the wider ecosystem, so these diminishing numbers will disrupt how nature functions. We must contemplate the repercussions for the balance of nature and the effect on the environment if we allow these numbers to continue to plummet. For instance, if we consider the climate giants, whales - the more whales there are, the more phytoplankton there is, and the more carbon removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, restoring their populations and safeguarding their future is crucial for the future of our planet.


Whale poo is a brilliant fertiliser for microscopic plants that produce oxygen and remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Whale poo is a brilliant fertiliser for microscopic plants that produce oxygen and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Over a thousand whales are killed every year because people make money from selling their meat and body parts. But the characteristics that make trophies may be the same characteristics that enabled them to thrive and live as long as they have, and therefore it’s important to understand, address, and conserve the cultural importance of each individual and the knock-on implications for those in their group who rely on them. How and what to conserve is more complicated than ever before.

Fin whales are relentlessly hunted for their oil, meat and baleen, their numbers have been radically reduced by whalers. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
Fin whales are hunted for their oil, meat and baleen, causing their numbers to radically reduce. © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

The journey ahead

CMS has a strong record when it comes to whales and dolphins, through its successful Global Programme of Work, which we are helping to review. During the meeting, we focused on a problem in West Africa - the growing reliance on the meat from dolphins and small whales as a food source. The demand has grown at an unprecedented rate, and we must act fast to ensure we don’t see the localised extinction of populations and even entire species of dolphins. This is the fate of the Atlantic humpback dolphin, one of only two species exclusive to Africa. They have vanished from Cameroon as a direct result of hunting. At a previous CMS meeting, I shed light on the urgent need for the protection of this beautiful species and we will continue to champion them.

Another part of the meeting focused on two vulnerable species of dolphin. One is the franciscana dolphin, and the other is Lahille’s dolphin - a recently recognised sub-species of the bottlenose dolphin found in the coastal waters of Brazil and Uruguay with fewer than 600 individuals left. Discussions resulted in both being approved for a ‘Concerted Action’, meaning countries where these dolphins are found must come together to address the current crisis facing them.

Franciscana dolphin
Franciscana dolphin © L. Russo Lacerna & M. Failla/ Fundación Cethus

We also addressed a species a little bit closer to home - the Baltic harbour porpoise. We successfully persuaded the committee to recommend urgent action to halt their decline by the countries bordering the Baltic Sea, as only co-ordinated and collaborative actions can ensure they have a future.

Orcas swimming
Wild and free, as they should be.

There’s lots to do between now and CMS COP14 in February, but your support allows us to keep working on a global stage to ensure decisions are made that will protect and conserve whale, dolphin and porpoise populations and even entire species in this rapidly changing world.

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help us to allow whales and dolphins to travel freely.