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Shipping Lanes Make Way For Dolphins

Scientists from Earthwatch, the environmental charity, are celebrating this week after the International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreed to divert shipping lanes off the southern coast of Spain in order to avoid important bottlenose dolphin foraging grounds.

When passing through the Alboran Sea, merchant ships and fisherman will now be required to travel 20 miles further south off the coast of Almeria. This diversion will reduce acoustic and water pollution in the area and should help to mitigate the impact of accidental oil spills on coastal habitats and tourist beaches.

“This is very positive news for the bottlenose dolphin,” says Earthwatch scientist Ricardo Sagarminaga van Buiten. “Cargo ships, often carrying dangerous substances, regularly pass through the Alboran Sea’s primary dolphin feeding grounds.”

He continues, “Bottlenose dolphins have suffered a sharp decline in the Mediterranean over the last decade, so diverting the shipping route should give the species an opportunity to recover.”

The Alboran Sea is a gateway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. It provides an essential migratory corridor for a large variety of marine species and attracts an abundance of fish. This high productivity makes it one of Europe’s most valuable feeding sites for dolphins and sea turtles. However, almost 30 percent of the world’s maritime traffic currently passes through these waters.

Together with maritime experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Earthwatch scientists made recommendations to the Spanish Merchant Navy and IMO, following five years of research in the area for the European Commission LIFE Nature project.*

Since 2002, they have spent more than 700 days at sea, surveying 10,000 miles in order to develop conservation management plans for marine protected areas. In this time, over 500 international Earthwatch volunteers have given up their time to support them.

This long-term research project confirms that throughout the Mediterranean the bottlenose dolphin population is fragmented; their migratory activities have decreased and local populations are genetically isolated. The Almeria dolphin population is currently the only healthy one in the Mediterranean; dolphin groups average 30 individuals here, compared to 2 to 5 individuals in other regions.

Conserving this site and providing safe access between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean basin is therefore crucial for the survival of the species.

Zoe Gamble | alfa
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