Arabian Sea humpback Whales on the agenda for the CMS COP in February 2024

 

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) will hold its 14th Conference of Parties  in Uzbekistan from 12-17 February, 2024 Document UNEP/CMS/COP14/Doc.32.2.3 contains a progress report on the Concerted Action for Arabian Sea humpback whales, and a proposal to extend the Action for the next three years.  Why is this important?

Context and progress

The Concerted Action for Arabian Sea humpback whales (ASHW) was first endorsed by the CMS Conference of Parties in 2017 and was extended in 2020. Since that time, considerable progress has been made in the three main categories of Action: 1) addressing knowledge gaps; 2) information sharing and awareness raising; and 3) Capacity building and implementation of threat mitigation strategies.  Highlights include:

Why an Extension is needed 

ASHW are isolated from other humpback whale populations in the Indian Ocean. However, satellite tagging, acoustic data, and photographic matches provide evidence that there is movement between Arabian Sea range countries.  Threats to this Endangered population’s continued survival also span political borders, and can only be effectively addressed through collaborative measures from government and industry decision makers.  The CMS Concerted Action, from the time of its conception in 2017 was intended to culminate in the development and implementation of a regional Conservation Management Plan, led by government stakeholders, and jointly implemented under the CMS and the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Members of the Arabian Sea Whale Network have been able to progress research and conservation measures at local and sometimes national scales, and implement many of the activities that would be included in a CMP. However, the CMP itself has not yet been established.  A recent workshop in Oman, continued involvement from the IWC and other signs indicate that this goal should be achievable in the next triennium if the extension of the Concerted Action is endorsed during COP 14.

Click here to download a Factsheet that can be used to support outeach to decision makers involved in the CMS COP and/or regional conservation measures for Arabian Sea humpback whales.

ASHW Factsheet for CMS COP 14_FINAL

Collaboration and innovation for Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales in Oman

From November 21st-December 11th, 2023, an international team of experts collaborated with the Environment Authority of Oman to conduct one of the most ambitious surveys for Arabian Sea humpback whales (ASHW) to date.  At the height of the survey, which was coordinated by Future Seas, based in Oman, three boats were working in parallel in the Gulf of Masirah, implementing photo-identification, genetic sampling, acoustic sampling, body condition measurements, deployment of long-term satellite tags, and innovative new technology using drones to deploy short-term suction cup tags.  The surveys also provided valuable opportunities for training and exchange of experience and expertise among scientists from Oman, the US, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, Kenya and Slovenia.   

Over the course of 11 full days on the water, the team documented 14 sightings of 10 individual humpback whales.  All 10 whales were identified as individuals that had been observed in previous years and registered in the Oman humpback whale photo-identification catalogue, which is curated by the Environment Society of Oman. Some individuals had sighting histories dating back 22 years to October 2001 when they were first photographed in the same general area.  Sloughed skin and biopsy samples for genetic analysis were collected from two individuals, and at least four individuals were singing when they were approached, allowing the team to record hours of high-quality song that can be compared with song collected in other parts of the Arabian Sea and the southern Indian Ocean to provide further insight into population identity and possible affiliations.

The leading objective of the survey was to begin a second phase of satellite tagging to build on the valuable data collected from the tags that were deployed in Oman between 2014 and 2017.  This proved unusually challenging, as almost all the encounters with whales involved unpredictable surfacing patterns that prevented the ideal approach and alignment required for an optimal deployment.  However, on the last day of tagging surveys, the team managed to deploy a tag on Individual OM22-001, named ‘Shamtain’, a whale first identified in the Gulf of Masirah in November 2022.  The tag is still transmitting well, and the whale’s movements from the past three weeks can be viewed in the screenshot below.

 

The survey team also included two scientists working with Ocean Alliance, a US-based NGO that has developed innovative technology to deploy short-term suction cup bio-logging tags (CATS & Dtags) from drones.  Five successful Dtag and two successful CATS tag deployments will yield valuable data to provide insight into the behaviour and energetics of this endangered population in order to support future conservation efforts.  Click here to view a video demonstrating this amazing new technology.

Left: Ocean Alliance Team member launches a drone armed with a suction cup tag. Right, a CATS tag, that recorded video, sound and dive behaviour on a whale known as ‘Zebra’ (OM01-013).

The survey also yielded a valuable sighting of over 20 Endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, and four sightings of Bryde’s whales, including a mother with a calf, providing insight into these species’ distribution and ecology.  However, one of the most rewarding results of the survey was the exchange of experience and expertise that took place between all of the members of the team.  Training sessions were held on data archiving and management, marine wildlife photography,  methods for individual identification of whales and dolphins,  the use of drones to film and measure body condition of whales, and satellite tagging safety protocols.

 

 

 

 

 

From left to right: 1) Tilen Genov, of Morigenos in Slovenia, shares his expertise on photo-identification of dolphins with members of the team from the Oman Environment Authority.  2) Chris Zadra, of Ocean Alliance, demonstrates the modified ‘snot-bot’ technology to deploy suction cup tags from drones. 3)  Team members from the Environment Society of Oman and the Oman Environment Authority enter data at the end of the day – both are graduates of ESO’s recent Cetacean Research and Conservation Training programme. 4) Every aspect of the survey required close collaboration and hard work, including loading and unloading equipment onto the boats!

Stay tuned over the coming weeks and months as the team members analyse and report on the data generated from this valuable survey.  You can follow updates on these social media platforms:

Environment Authority Oman:

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/eaoman

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/eaoman/

Twitter/X: @eaoman

see also: https://twitter.com/omanepress/status/1738949518052176212?s=46&t=_2bPN-JqVqpwI9_Sqj5Lwg

Future Seas:  

Twitter/X: https://twitter.com/future_seas_

Instagramhttps://www.instagram.com/future_seas_/

Ocean Alliance

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/oceanalliance/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oceanalliance

Environment Society of Oman

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/EnvironmentSocietyOfOman

Twitter/X: https://twitter.com/eso_oman_

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/esooman/

Arabian Sea Whale Network

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ArabianSeaWhaleNetwork/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/arabianseawhalenetwork/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/arabian-sea-whale-network-aswn/

The Environment Society of Oman celebrates the graduates of a year-long Cetacean Research and Conservation Capacity Building programme

On Friday, October 5th, 2023, the Environment Society of Oman celebrated the achievement of four early-career Omani scientists who completed a year-long long capacity building programme on cetacean research and conservation.  The programme, previously funded by HSBC Oman and now by Sohar International Bank, started in September 2022 with a series of classroom style components, delivered through a combination of online and in-person elements including lectures, questions and answers and group exercises. Half-day long modules focused on topics including general cetacean biology and ecology, cetaceans in Oman, cetacean research methodology, protocols for boat-based research in Oman, and a module titled ‘beyond research – engaging stakeholders in conservation’.

Participants also took part in boat-based surveys in the Muscat area and the Gulf of Masirah, where they had a chance to complement their classroom learning with hands-on experience in data collection protocols, photo-identification, data downloading and archiving, and mapping and data analysis.   On Thursday, October 5th, participants presented the results of their final projects, which required them to apply their experience in a very practical way.  Final projects included the drafting and design of a ‘glossy’ survey report for funders, geospatial analysis of the November 2022 Gulf of Masirah survey data, the design of a month-long social media campaign to raise awareness of cetaceans and their conservation needs in Oman, and the design and implementation of a systematic cetacean survey in Musandam.  

All four candidates did an excellent job of presenting their project results to ESO management and the sponsor. The programme will continue with some more Muscat-based survey training.  It will be great to see what this inspiring new generation of cetacean scientists and advocates do next.

ASWN members participate in a regional meeting showcasing new tools for marine conservation

The Global Biodiversity Initiative Project (GOBI) hosted a meeting in Oman on October 2-4th, 2023 with the theme of ‘New tools to support ocean conservation, planning and sustainable use in the northwest Indian Ocean’.  A number of ASWN members participated, representing organizations from Oman, Pakistan, and India.  

The workshop highlighted a suite of new tools developed under the GOBI-IKI Project, including:

The meeting also included presentations from regional participants, who described ongoing projects to protect marine biodiversity in Oman, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Seychelles, and Mauritius. These presentations included a focus on Arabian Sea humpback whales, and the work that the Environment Society of Oman, WCS India, WWF Pakistan and the University of Karachi, and the ASWN are doing to better understand the population and to work towards a regional Conservation Management Plan for this Endangered population.  

The meeting provided an excellent opportunity for a few ASWN members to reconnect in person, and to welcome new members from WCS India and WWF Pakistan.  It also provided inspiration to and raise funds to bring the wider network together in person.  Watch this space!

Iran’s reporting network yields valuable records of Bryde’s whales

Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni) sighting

In recent news from the region, two baleen whales were spotted by fishermen; Mr. Meysam Sajadi Far and Amir Jamshidiat from Kangan, at two different locations in the Persian* Gulf on the 20th and 21st of June 2023. The fishermen shared photos and videos of the sightings with ASWN members, Plan4theLand, who, in turn, shared photos with ASWN members with particular expertise in identifying baleen whales. It was agreed that the whales are very likely to be Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni) based upon some discernible features and elimination of other candidate species.

Caption: Locations of two Bryde’s whale sightings reported by fishers to ASWN Partners in Iran, Plan4theLand.

Sightings of Bryde’s whales are fairly common throughout the Northern Indian Ocean, including in the Persian* Gulf. ASWN members have reported many sightings over the years, and the ASWN Google Group email list has proven a good forum for sharing these sightings and confirming species’ identifications. The region hosts two 2 genetically recognized, but poorly studied subspecies of Bryde’s whale: the larger, offshore form, Balaenoptera edeni brydei, and the smaller, coastal form, Balaenoptera edeni edeni (Kershaw et al. 2013). Furthermore, researchers are always on the lookout for the more rarely documented Omura’s whale (Balaenotera omura) (Cerchio et al. 2019), which is similar in general size and warm-water range, and is known to occur in the region, based on a confirmed stranding record from Qeshm, Iran (Ranjbar et al. 2016). In the recent observations of these two baleen whales, photographic evidence clearly indicates that they are not Omura’s whales, leaving Bryde’s whale as the most likely alternative since other small to medium size balaenopterid (rorquals) whales are absent from the Gulf.

Reports from fishing communities and recreational vessels or other ‘citizen scientists’ are very helpful in learning more about the distribution of these whales in the region. This information plays a vital role in regional research and conservation efforts. During the 2023 IWC Scientific Committee meeting, the Committee discussed the importance of further investigations to better understand the drivers of the distribution and relative abundance of Bryde’s whales in the Arabian region.

Recent acoustic data from southern oman (Cerchio et al. 2023) indicated the consistent presence throughout the year of a vocalisation likely to be from Bryde’s whale, and the results of boat-based surveys (Minton et al. 2023) reflected an inverse relationship between detections of Bryde’s whales and humpback whales, with authors speculating that both species’ relative abundance may vary in relation to oceanographic conditions that favour one type of prey over another. There were several recommendations to continue this work and, when possible, combine observational and acoustic datasets within the Arabian Sea to advance our understanding of whale habitat use and distribution in the region. The sub-committee recommended regional collaboration to continue to collect information, and to conduct more dedicated research to better address the status of this species. The ASWN hopes to foster this regional collaboration and to support members in their efforts to foster effective reporting networks that will facilitate the contribution of more valuable sightings like this most recent one from Iran.

Cited Literature

  • Cerchio, S., Willson, A., Cholewiak, D., Sackett, M., Al Harthi, S., Baldwin, R., Collins, T., Minton, G., Sarrouf Willson, M., 2023. Acoustic monitoring for baleen whale vocalizations off southern Oman, 2020 to 2022. Document presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission SC/69A/CMP/12/Rev1, 18.
  • Cerchio S, Yamada TK and Brownell RL Jr (2019) Global Distribution of Omura’s Whales (Balaenoptera omurai) and Assessment of Range-Wide Threats. Front. Mar. Sci. 6:67. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00067
  • Kershaw, F., Leslie, M.S., Collins, T., Mansur, R.M., Smith, B.D., Minton, G., Baldwin, R., LeDuc, R.G., Anderson, R.C., Brownell, R.L., 2013. Population differentiation of 2 forms of Bryde’s Whales in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Journal of Heredity 104, 755-764.
  • Minton, G., Willson, A., Christiansen, F., Al Jabri, A., Al Lawati, R., Al Aamri, A., Baldwin, R., Collins, T., Cerchio, S., Willson, M.S., 2023. Cetacean surveys in Oman November 2019- November 2022. Docment presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission SC/69A/CMP/07, 19.
  • Ranjbar, S., Dakhteh, S. M. H., and Van Waerebeek, K. (2016). Omura’s whale Balaenoptera omurai stranding on Qeshm Island, Iran, Persian Gulf: further evidence for a wide (sub)tropical distribution. J. Mar. Biol. Oceanogr. 5:3. doi: 10.4172/2324-8661.1000161
*also known as the Arabian Gulf in many ASHW range countries
Lake Bled, Slovenia

Arabian Sea Whales at the 2023 IWC Scientific Committee Meeting

This year the annual IWC Scientific Committee (SC) meeting was held in Bled, Slovenia between the 24th April and the 6th May 2023. A few ASWN members had the opportunity to attend the meeting in person or virtually, including Gianna Minton, Andrew Willson, Sal Cerchio, Tim Collins, Aida al Jabri and Moazzam Khan. 

Arabian Sea Humpback Whales (ASHW) were identified as a priority candidate for a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) in 2010. During this year’s meeting the IWC SC congratulated  the significant progress that has been made towards the development of a joint CMS-IWC CMP for ASHWs despite the current obstacles. The efforts of Arabian Sea Whale Network members were acknowledged by the Committee members as essential to creating the framework to develop a CMP. The Committee commended stakeholders in Oman for hosting a workshop focusing on Conservation Management of  ASHW at national and regional levels, and further reiterated the importance of regional collaboration. 

A number of documents and papers were presented by ASWN members at the meeting including the following: 

  • The annual ASWN Progress Report (SC/69A/CMP/04Rev1): featured contributions from several ASWN members, including updates on both regional-level activities and  projects, sightings and stranding reports, and capacity building conducted at local and national levels throughout the region. The report highlighted the lack of  sightings of ASHWs in the Arabian Gulf in past years despite the increased observation and reporting efforts. The sub-committee on CMS encouraged both, the work of the ASWN, and continued progress towards developing and implementing a regional CMP.
  • Cetacean Surveys in Oman (SC/69A/CMP/07): Findings surveys conducted between November 2019 and November 2022 further reinforced the need for continued monitoring of species of whales’ relative abundance, distribution and health in relation to changing oceanographic conditions in the Arabian Sea.
  • Sightings of whales in the Northern Arabian Sea along the coast of Pakistan in 2022 and 2023 (SC/69A /CMP/05): reports on the past year’s results of  the WWF Pakistan crew-based observer programme, which still includes some humpback whale sightings despite a lack of funding for the captains that share sightings data.
  • Variation in songs of Arabian Sea humpback whales (SC/69A/CMP/10): indicates continued isolation of ASHW from other Indian Ocean humpback whale populations, a slow rate of song change in the Arabian Sea, and connectivity between Oman and India.
  • Acoustic monitoring for baleen whale vocalizations off southern Oman from 2020 to 2022 (SC/69A/CMP/12): reported frequent detections of blue whale songs from NWIO and CIO populations; indicating the two populations’ range overlap in southern Oman.
  • Geospatial analysis of ASHW habitat preference and ship strike risk assessment (SC/69A/HIM/07): presented a ship strike risk analysis and a suggestion  that routing vessels 40 nm further offshore from the current shipping lane off the Arabian Sea coast of Oman would reduce ship trike risk by as much as 88%.
  • A note on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the central Indian Ocean (SC/69A/ForInfo/33): described a bimodal pattern of occurrence of humpback whales in the CIO using information collated from various sources, including social media and a citizen science project.
  • Arabian Sea Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Singing Activity off Netrani Island, India (SC/69A/ForInfo/52 ): describes humpback whale song recorded by a passive acoustic recorder moored off of southern India.
  • Remote and non-invasive quantification of ‘Tattoo Skin Disease-Like’ dermatopathy in endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales using drone photography (SC/69A/ForInfo/68): Drone aerial photography was used as a complementary approach to images obtained during boat-based surveys to identify and quantify TSD-L lesions.
  • A report from the ASHW Biotelemetry ICG (SC/69A/SMP26):  described discussions related to the risks and potential value of continuing satellite tagging to address the key data gaps following previous tagging  studies.  The document includes recommendations to adopt rigorous tagging protocols following best practices that were endorsed by the committee. 

Actions recommended for the ASW by the Scientific Committee at IWC-SC Meeting 2023

Discussion of the body of work presented led the IWC Scientific Committee to draw the following conclusions and recommendations:

Excerpt from  Annex F ,  page 18-19 – recommendations for Arabian Sea humpback whales

The sub-committee applauded the stakeholder engagement workshop held in Oman to advance ASHW conservation and the potential benefits of a CMP. 

Noting that a) in 2008 the population of ASHW was estimated at 82 individuals, and that since then SC has repeatedly expressed concern about the urgent need for conservation management interventions; b) detection of ASHW song during the breeding season declined from 59% of monitored hours in 2011-12 to 2% in the 2021/2022 season, and that sightings of ASHW in formerly core habitat have become sporadic, coinciding with sea surface temperature anomalies which are at or above an upper threshold for ASHW; c) a weakening of the northwest Indian Ocean monsoon is causing deoxygenation and denitrification of surface waters, which is negatively influencing ecosystem productivity including sardines, an important ASHW prey; d) a 35% regional increase in the volume of vessel traffic between 2008 and 2018 has increased the risk of ship strike within ASHW core habitat; and e) two thirds of animals observed in the western Arabian Sea have scarring associated with fisheries interactions:

The committee commended efforts fostered by authorities to study the ASHW population and expressed deep concern for the population based on its current status and the degrading condition of its habitat, strongly reiterated that the Arabian Sea humpback whales are priority candidates for a CMP, and welcomed efforts to encourage range states to develop a joint CMS-IWC CMP. The sub-committee strongly recommended the following actions as a matter of absolute urgency throughout the ASHW range:

  1. produce a synthesis of ASHW distribution, identification of important habitats and potential threats throughout its range, and use these to develop marine spatial management plans across the region to mitigate impacts in high-risk areas with a focus on both commercial and artisanal fisheries interactions, and impacts from commercial shipping and ship strike risk assessments using multi-species and dynamic species distribution modelling approaches;
  2. support the continuation of the crew-based observer programme in Pakistan (SC/69A/CMP/05), and, where possible, replicate this approach throughout the region especially in areas where systematic cetacean surveys are not feasible;
  3. continue the use of UAVs to assess body condition in conjunction with other metrics to assess seasonal and annual variation and to evaluate health, scarring, and foraging success and that photographic data collected in Oman from 2019-2022 is used to conduct an updated visual health assessment using the same methodology as used by Minton et al. (2022);
  4. conduct continuous and simultaneous passive acoustic monitoring in ASHW identified habitat in both the western Arabian Sea (different parts of Oman’s waters, Socotra and the Gulf of Aden) and eastern Arabian Sea (Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives) to: (a) describe and assess changes in spatiotemporal distribution throughout the Arabian Sea and (b) use song structure variation as an indicator of movements of individuals, potential sub-structure within the population, and monitor for future mixing with other populations;
  5. conduct further satellite telemetry studies specifically aimed at filling important data gaps in the temporal distribution and sex composition of existing data, including assessing movement behaviour of individuals during the periods February and June to October, and increasing the sample size of females;
  6. collate and analyse stranding data throughout the suspected ASHW range to better understand trends in whale distribution and mortality;
  7. complete genetic analyses of the Megaptera indica type specimen in comparison with genetic samples from Oman in order to clarify the taxonomic status of ASHW; and
  8. regularly update abundance and trend estimates with the most recently available photographic mark-recapture data.

Furthermore, the subcommittee noted that the lack of funding for dedicated coordination of the network was potentially hindering progress toward a CMP, and recommended that funding be sought to support coordination and capacity building opportunities for a range country scientist to take on this role.  The subcommittee also discussed stranding records of Bryde’s whales from Pakistan and UAE. Given the limited information on Bryde’s whales in the region the committee recommended regional collaboration to conduct more dedicated research to better address the status of the species across the region. 

The complete report of the 2023 IWC-SC Meeting can be found here.

Workshop in Oman brings stakeholders together to discuss conservation management of Endangered Arabian Sea Humpback Whales

Press release issued by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO)

Muscat, 28th November 2022 – A workshop focused on the protection of Arabian Sea humpback whales was organized in a collaboration between the Environment Authority (EA) and the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), with funding provided by HSBC Oman. The event brought together local and international experts and policy makers to encourage collective responsibility and further actions that could lead to a safer habitat for the regionally endangered species. The full workshop report can be downloaded by clicking here.

The two-day workshop involved presentations by representatives from international experts, including the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cetacean Specialist Group, as well as local entities who recognize the importance of protecting Arabian Sea humpback whales, including the Environment Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Water Resources.

“The workshop first focused on the current status of the Arabian Sea humpback whale sub-population in Oman and recommendations for collaborative measures to help conserve this endangered species,” Eng. Ahmed Said Al Shukaili, Director of Marine Conservation Department at the Environment Authority, explained. “This small population could be pushed to the brink of extinction if threats are not addressed, which could result in an ecological imbalance in our marine environment. The major threats to this unique species include collisions with ships, noise pollution, whale and dolphin watching tourism and entanglement in fishing nets. There is an urgent need to collectively mitigate these risks.

The workshop included discussions on how to design and implement Conservation Management Plans (CMP), which aim to minimize the threat to Arabian Sea humpback whales and other marine life. HH Sayyida Tania Al Said, President of the Environment Society Oman, said, “Sustainable conservation measures incorporating a crosscutting approach are required to mitigate the threats to the survival of this unique species. During our workshop, we discussed how various government and industry stakeholders can work together to develop a local Conservation Management Plan considering lessons learned from a global perspective, as well as ways in which Oman can collaborate with other countries within the Arabian Sea humpback range to promote regional conservation measures.” She added, “We would like to acknowledge the support of HSBC Oman, the Environment Authority, as well as all our other partners, for helping us bring more attention to the endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale and call for collective action to help protect the species.”

“This workshop is part of a wider conservation and capacity building programme that supports the conservation of Arabian Sea humpback whales.  The programme supports the UN Sustainable Development Goal agenda, in developing capacity on climate change mitigation. We are happy to renew our established relationship with The Environment Society of Oman in this project, which will give a valuable opportunity to support the next generation of marine researchers and activists,” said Melika Betley, CEO of HSBC Oman.

Oman provides an important habitat to over 20 species of whales and dolphins, including the Arabian Sea humpback whale that has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. ESO, in cooperation with its partners, has been conducting research on whales and dolphins for nearly 20 years, and sharing findings with those responsible for conservation management. For more information on the Marine Mammals Atlas of Oman, which details past research and status of each cetacean species in Oman, visit https://esofundraiser.com/resources/.

English language press coverage:

Oman works on conservation of endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales

https://www.albawaba.com/business/pr/workshop-complement-development-conservation-targeting-endangered-arabian-sea-humpback

 

ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY OF OMAN PARTNERS WITH HSBC OMAN FOR WHALE CONSERVATION AND CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAMMES

 

Young scientists from ESO and Future Seas get a taste of humpback whale research in the Gulf of Masirah in November 2021.  Photo by Gianna Minton.

Press release shared by ASWN partner, the Environment Society of Oman (ESO):  In recent weeks, the ESO signed a two-year sponsorship agreement with HSBC Bank Oman to support its efforts towards the conservation of the Arabian Sea humpback whale. Under the partnership, ESO will carry out two new projects; a Conservation Management Plan that aims to work with local authorities to implement alternative solutions to harmful marine practices that threaten the whales’ survival, and a Capacity Building programme that focuses on developing the next generation of cetacean (whales and dolphins) researchers.

Maia Willson, Research and Conservation Manager at ESO, said, “We’ve been researching Oman’s whales for the last 20 years with the help of local and international collaborations. Whilst this work is still ongoing, we now have sufficient scientific information to inform conservation actions. As we move into 2022, our attention turns to how we tackle the issues threatening the survival of the endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales. With the valuable support of HSBC, we are able to move towards tangible action, to help implement policies for greater protection, and to prepare the next generation of local marine research and conservationists needed to continue this vital work.”

“HSBC has a longstanding commitment to support the communities in which we operate. Through our partnership with the Environment Society of Oman, this conservation and capacity building programme will give a valuable opportunity to develop the next generation of marine researchers and activists and support one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals on building human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation,” said Melika Betley, CEO of HSBC Oman.

The Arabian Sea humpback whale is one of one of 20 species of marine mammals found in Oman’s waters. Classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species in 2008, it is estimated to be one of the smallest and potentially most vulnerable whale population in the world, numbering fewer than 100 individuals. Research supported by ESO has also proven Oman’s humpback whales to be the only known population in the world not to migrate between high and low latitudes, staying instead to breed and feed in the waters surrounding Oman.

Believed to have been isolated in the Arabian Sea region for c. 70,000 years, they are a highly distinct population with photo-identification studies resulting in no matches outside of the Arabian Sea region and acoustic studies revealing a highly distinctive song.

Since its inception in 2004, ESO has focused on developing a better understanding of the distribution and ecology of the different whales found in Oman’s waters. Among its achievements last year, the country’s only non-profit organization focusing on environmental preservation launched the Marine Mammal Atlas of Oman, a publication that is the culmination of 20 years of scientific research and serves as an important reference for studies on environmental diversity, while also raising awareness on the species.

As a non-profit organization, ESO continues to rely on the generous support of sponsors and members to deliver this work. For more information on how to support, make a donation, or to find out other ways to get involved, visit eso.org.om.

 

ESO partners with HSBC Oman for Arabian Sea humpback whale conservation

ESO partners with HSBC Oman for Arabian Sea humpback whale conservation

Successful release of an entangled humpback whale in Duqm Port, Oman

The rescue team working to free the whale from gillnets. Duqm Port. Photo courtesy Port of Duqm Company.

On the evening of January 18th, 2021, staff at the Environment Authority – Oman (EA) were notified that  an Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale had been observed entangled in fishing gear inside the Port of Duqm. This information was shared with the Oman Stranding Network. The whale had apparently been trapped for days, with net and line wrapped inside its mouth and around the flippers, dorsal fin and tail stock. This situation was immediately recognised as a significant risk for both the whale and Port operations.

Recalling the entanglement response training that had been conducted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Oman in 2015, specialists from the Environment Authority, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC and Future Seas Global SPC, supported by the Environment Society (ESO) and the Port of Duqm quickly mobilised a team and equipment to drive down from Muscat to Duqm, reaching the Port on the following day.  With assistance and personnel from Oman’s Coast Guard, Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) and the Port of Duqm, as well as real time advice from members of the IWC entanglement expert panel the team spent the afternoon of the 19th initiating disentanglement.

Click here to watch a video clip of the response.  This shows the team in the day’s last light, attaching buoys to slow the whale down and the prevent it from diving during while the team was working to remove the net. During this intervention, the team noted that as the whale attempted to dive, the upwards force of the buoy helped to unwrap rope and net from the mouth, followed by more rope being dislodged from the flippers and area around the dorsal fin. By the end of the day it was apparent that the only net remaining was on the tail stock.

Video and photographs of the whale during the disentanglement allowed the research team to recognise it as one of the individual whales catalogued in a long-term photoidentification study that has been undertaken in Oman since the year 2000. The whale was identified as individual ‘OM11-016’, which was first photographed near the Port of Duqm in 2010, and then again further south near Hasik in 2011 and 2014.  Most recently this whale had been observed again just outside Duqm Port in October, 2020.

On January 20th, when the rescue team returned to the scene to continue the disentanglement, the whale was no longer in the port. Neither a search of the immediate area using port pilot vessels nor a helicopter search by the Royal Air Force of Oman detected the whale still towing the attached  buoys. However, video shared by a coastguard vessel showed a whale swimming freely in the port later on the day of the 20th. Although the video footage did not allow for definitive identification of the whale, the habitual appearance of this whale in the port over the last 3 months, the absence of any detection during the aerial search, and the observations of the net unwrapping on the previous day all lead the team to conclude that this was very likely the same whale, and that the actions taken on the 19th had enabled the whale to shed the rest of the fishing gear and swim free. In addition, no further sightings of the whale have been recorded since Jan 20th, which, if it were still entangled, might have been expected.

With fewer than 100 individual humpback whales believed to remain off the coast of Oman, the incident highlights a number of issues of critical importance to efforts to protect the species and prevent its extinction:

  • Published research as well as the sighting history of OM11-016 and many other humpback whales in the Oman photo-identification catalogue indicate that whales have a strong affinity to the habitat in the Gulf of Masirah near the Port of Duqm.
  • This highly productive area is also known to be a hotspot for intensive artisanal fishing, with some vessels (referred to locally as dhows) used to set gillnets similar to that found on the entangled whale. These nets are regularly set within the core feeding grounds of humpback whales and are intended to catch large fin-fish that feed on smaller fish like sardines, which are a prey species for the whales. .
  • A recent study presented to the IWC Scientific committee found that 67% of humpback whales photographed off the coast of Oman have scars on their tail stocks consistent with entanglement in fishing gear. Whales can become entangled in both active and abandoned gear. ESO conducted a behaviour change study to address marine wildlife entanglement in fishing nets on Masirah in 2018/2019. The study revealed a low rate of change, highlighting a pressing need to further engage with the fishing community and increase their knowledge of socio-economic and environmental impacts of fisheries. Two awareness-raising videos were created to support the project- a short animated piece and a 5-minute-long feature on the project.
  • Similar gillnets are used throughout the Arabian Sea by registered legal fishing fleets as well as illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fleets. Scientists in the Arabian Sea Whale Network have shared incidents of entanglements occurring off the coasts of Oman, Pakistan, Iran and Somalia. In some of these incidents fishing crews have attempted disentanglements that are extremely dangerous, such as hanging from ropes and entering the water with whales, highlighting the need for more training and guidance throughout the region.
  • Finally, the incident also highlights the persistent threat of ship strikes to Arabian Sea humpback whales and other whale species in the region. Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC spent 3 years working with the Port of Duqm to develop and implement a Whale Management and Mitigation Plan, a programme that could be further strengthened at the Port of Duqm as well as adapted for implementation at other ports in the region. Click here to see one of the key outreach tools used in this plan.

A photo shared on social media of a fisherman from an Iranian vessel operating of the coast of Somalia, attempting an extremely dangerous rescue of a female humpback whale as a calf swims nearby.

New population of blue whales discovered in the western Indian Ocean!

Several ASWN members have been involved in the discovery and description of a new blue whale song, that defines a unique population of blue whales in the Arabian Sea and Western Indian Ocean.  The official press release is copied here below, and a link to the newly published paper in Endangered Species Research can be found here .

Blue whale off the coast of Oman. Copyright Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman.Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived on our planet, and they are found around the globe in all oceans. All blue whales sing very low-pitched and recognizable songs, and conveniently for researchers, every population has its own unique song. In a recently published paper in the journal Endangered Species Research, the researchers describe a new blue whale song that is heard from the Arabian Sea coast of Oman across to the Chagos Archipelago in the central Indian Ocean and as far south as Madagascar in the southwest Indian Ocean.

Dr. Salvatore Cerchio, Director of the African Aquatic Conservation Fund’s Cetacean Program and Visiting Scientist at the New England Aquarium, led the analysis of recordings of the whale from three locations in the western Indian Ocean. Dr. Cerchio first recorded the novel song in 2017, during research focused on Omura’s whales in the Mozambique Channel off Madagascar, and he recognized it as a blue whale song that had never been described. Cerchio was also working with a team of scientists collecting acoustic recordings off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea. This is part of a research effort focused on the highly endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale, an ongoing collaboration between the Environment Society of Oman, Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, Oman’s Environment Authority and Oman’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Water Resources.

While analyzing the Oman acoustic data, the team recognized the same unusual song. This novel blue whale song was recorded even more prevalently off Oman than Madagascar, and it became clear to the researchers that they had found what was likely a previously unrecognized population of blue whales in the western Indian Ocean.

“It was quite remarkable,” said Cerchio, “to find a whale song in your data that was completely unique, never before reported, and recognize it as a blue whale.” Blue whale song has been extensively studied globally, and several blue whale populations have been identified based on their distinct songs throughout the Indian Ocean.

“With all that work on blue whale songs, to think there was a population out there that no one knew about until 2017, well, it kind of blows your mind,” Cerchio said.

In 2018, the team reported their findings to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which was in the process of evaluating the status of blue whale populations in the Indian Ocean. The finding created quite a bit of excitement at the meeting, and raised many new questions about blue whale population movements and structure in the Indian Ocean.  Emmanuelle Leroy and Tracey Rogers of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, were also conducting acoustic research on blue whales in the Indian Ocean. Upon reading the IWC report on the new song, Leroy recognized that they also had recorded the same song off the Chagos Archipelago in the central Indian Ocean.

“Shortly after we made the first report at IWC,” said Cerchio, “I received an email from Emmanuelle saying, ‘Hey Sal, I think we have that Oman song off the Chagos!’”

The collaborative team grew, and analysis of data from all three sites suggested that the population may spend most of its time in the northwestern Indian Ocean, in the Arabian Sea and to the west of the Chagos. It has long been recognized that a unique population of blue whales resides in the Northern Indian Ocean, but it was assumed that whales in the Arabian Sea belonged to the same population that has been studied off Sri Lanka and ranges into the southcentral Indian Ocean. However, the songs tell a different story.

“Before our recording effort off Oman, there were no acoustic data from the Arabian Sea, and so the identity of that population of blue whales was initially just a guess,” said Andrew Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, who led the deployment of the recording units. “Our work shows that there is a lot more to learn about these animals, and this is an urgent requirement in light of the wide range of threats to large whales related to expanding maritime industries in the region.”

Blue whales were hunted to near extinction around the globe during the 20th century, and populations have only started to recover very slowly over the past several decades following the global moratorium on commercial whaling. The Arabian Sea was targeted by illegal Soviet whaling in the 1960’s, an activity that nearly eradicated what were already likely to be small populations of humpback whales, blue whales, sperm whales, and Bryde’s whales.

Some researchers consider both the northern Indian Ocean blue whales and Arabian Sea humpback whales to comprise unique subspecies, not simply populations, making them particularly special and important to biodiversity.

“These populations appear to be unique among baleen whales, in the case of the Arabian Sea humpback whales because of their year-round residency in the region without the same long-range migration of other populations,” Willson points out.

“For 20 years we have focused work on the highly endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale, for which we believe only about 100 animals remain off the coast of Oman,” says Suaad Al Harthi, Executive Director of the Environment Society of Oman. “Now, we are just beginning to learn more about another equally special, and likely equally endangered, population of blue whale.”

Additional coauthors of the paper include Robert Baldwin of Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, Danielle Cholewiak of NOAA Fisheries, Tim Collins of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Gianna Minton of Megaptera Marine Conservation, Charles Muirhead of Duke University, Tahina Rasoloarijao of the Institut Halieutique et des Sciences Marines, Madagascar, and Maïa Sarrouf Willson of the Environment Society of Oman.

The work was supported by the International Whaling Commission, Renaissance Services S.A.O.G., Shell Development Oman LLC (SDO), and NOAA Fisheries.