World-First Map Exposes Growing Dangers Along Whale Superhighways

Posted on 17 February 2022

A new global report by WWF and the marine mammal science community calls for urgent action to safeguard whales amid mounting threats along their migratory routes.

Gland, Switzerland (17 February) - A new report from WWF and partners provides the first truly comprehensive look at whale migrations and the threats they face across all oceans, highlighting how the impacts from industrial fishing, ship strikes, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change are creating a hazardous and sometimes fatal obstacle course for the species.

Protecting Blue Corridors, released today by WWF, has for the first time, visualised the satellite tracks of 845 migratory whales worldwide. The report outlines how whales are encountering multiple and growing threats in their critical ocean habitats – areas where they feed, mate, give birth, and nurse their young – and along their migration superhighways, or ‘blue corridors’.

“Cumulative impacts from human activities – including industrial fishing, ship strikes, chemical, plastic and noise pollution, habitat loss, and climate change – are creating a hazardous and sometimes fatal obstacle course,” said Chris Johnson, Global Lead for whale and dolphin conservation at WWF. “The deadliest by far is entanglement in fishing gear – killing an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises each year. What’s worse, this is happening from the Arctic to the Antarctic.”[1]

The report is a collaborative analysis of 30 years of scientific data contributed by more than 50 research groups, with leading marine scientists from Oregon State University, the University of California Santa Cruz, the University of Southampton and others. 

“Contributing years of data from Oregon State’s satellite tracking studies, we see migrations across national and international waters creating conservation challenges for populations to recover,” said Dr. Daniel M. Palacios of the Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University.

Case studies highlight hotspots and risks that whales navigate on their migrations, some of which can be thousands of kilometers each year.

As a result of these hazards, six out of the 13 great whale species are now classified as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, even after decades of protection after commercial whaling.[2] Among those populations most at risk is the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species that migrates between Canada and the United States. It is at its lowest point in 20 years – numbering only 336 individuals. 

An alarming 86% of identified right whales are estimated to have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their life.[3]  Just one death jeopardizes this population’s survival. Between 2017 and 2021, 34 North Atlantic right whales died off the Canadian and United States coasts from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
Protecting Blue Corridors calls for a new conservation approach to address these mounting threats and safeguard whales, through enhanced cooperation from local to regional to international levels. Of particular urgency is engagement with the United Nations, which is set to finalise negotiations on a new treaty for the high seas (Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction)* in March 2022.[4] 

As a researcher, this report provides a visual science-based guide to help inform effective management and decisions to create networks of marine protected areas to ensure whales have every opportunity to thrive,” says Dr. Ari Friedlaender, a whale ecologist from University of California Santa Cruz.

The benefits from protected blue corridors extend far beyond whales. Growing evidence shows the critical role whales play maintaining ocean health and our global climate – with one whale capturing the same amount of carbon as thousands of trees. The International Monetary Fund estimates the value of a single great whale at more than US$2 million, which totals more than US$1 trillion for the current global population of great whales.[5] 
“This report presents some of the most comprehensive data to date on large scale movements of whales through the world's oceans. The emerging picture underscores the need for swift, concerted action and investment of resources from national governments, international bodies, local communities, industry and conservation groups like WWF to stop this underwater assault on whales and protect these critical blue corridors," said Dr. Margaret Kinnard, WWF Global Wildlife Practice Lead.

Protecting Blue Corridors: Challenges and solutions for migratory whales navigating national and international seas is being published ahead of World Whale Day on 20 February. The full report is available here from 17 February.
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) feeding in the coastal waters near Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada.
© WWF-Canada / Chad Graham