As you may have seen in the news recently an international cetacean conservation agreement known as ASCOBANS has now been extended to include the waters of the Isle of Man. So what exactly is this agreement, and why is it good news for us?

Well firstly ASCOBANS stands for the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas, which as the names suggests is all about ensuring good conservation for ‘small cetaceans’. Cetacean is the term used to refer to whales, dolphins, and porpoises and in this case ‘small cetaceans’ covers every species of Odonotocete, or toothed whale, except the sperm whale which is considered as one of the ‘great whales’. Here around the Isle of Man we are lucky to regularly encounter five species of cetacean, four of which are Odontocetes and so fall under this definition of ‘small cetaceans’. Those species are the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), the Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus), the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), and the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis). We also often see minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) around the island but these are baleen, and not toothed whales, and so are not covered here.

“Migrating cetaceans regularly cross national boundaries. Their protection can only effectively be achieved by means of international cooperation. The aim of the Agreement is to promote close cooperation between countries with a view to achieving and maintaining a favourable conservation status for small cetaceans throughout the Agreement Area.”

ASCOBANS

Map of ASCOBANS region - credit: www.ascobans.org

The agreement was first established in 1991, originally covering just the Baltic and North Seas, in reaction to the worrying decline of the population of harbour porpoise in the Baltic Sea, and covers such requirements as prevention of significant disturbance, particularly acoustic disturbance. The agreement was updated in 2008 to cover the North East Atlantic and Irish Sea alongside the original Baltic and North Sea coverage. Of particular interest to Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch as a research organisation, and indeed the only organisation conducting cetacean research in Manx waters, is the requirement for surveys and research which highlight the need to “(a) assess the status and seasonal movements of the populations and stocks concerned, (b) locate areas of special importance to their survival, and (c) identify present and potential threats to the different species.” When Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch began its work here over 10 years ago there was next to nothing known about cetaceans in Manx waters. Our boat based, land based, and photo-identification surveys over this time have helped us to build up a picture of which species we can see here, and has given us an indication of seasonal patterns and general habitat usage. We’ve also started to get hints of the importance of the Isle of Man to perhaps our most iconic cetacean species, the Risso’s dolphin, as we have often encountered groups containing a number of very small calves suggesting the Irish Sea and Manx waters to be especially important in the early life stages of this species. There is still so much we want to learn about the amazing cetaceans we see here, such as using our photo-identification work to examine the social structure of the groups we see, and getting more accurate population abundance estimates. Our desire to get a towed hydrophone to conduct acoustic surveys around the island is particularly related as this type of equipment can help to gain more accurate counts of the numbers of animals using Manx waters.

A Risso's dolphin calf seen in Manx waters in 2013 - credit: Bryony Manley/Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch

The importance of education, which is something Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch is always working hard to promote, is also highlighted in the agreement particularly in relation to educating the general public to facilitate the reporting of sightings – which falls well and truly in to the work we have been carrying out over the last decade. In fact Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch was first established purely as a means of the public reporting sightings of cetaceans around the island, and the research component of our work grew from this. Indeed without these early sighting reports we would not have the baseline information we needed to show just how important it was to conduct surveys in this area.

We are very excited that the ASCOBANS agreement has been extended to the Isle of Man, especially as this whole process was initiated by an enquiry from our director Tom Felce as to whether the island was included in under the agreement, and if not why not. The work of Manx Whale and Dolphin Watch, which is reported annually to DEFA, helped to highlight why it was so important that we became a member of this agreement, and we hope that this while help us to drive our research and education efforts forward for many more years