Pelagos : an international marine sanctuary dedicated to the protection of cetaceans

© Sanctuaire Pelagos

Interview d’Alain Barcelo, responsable du service scientifique du Parc National de Port Cros qui anime la partie française de Pelagos.

Interview with Alain Barcelo, head of the scientific department of the National Park of Port-Cros, responsible for the French section of Pelagos.

Each time a marine mammal appears near the schooner, the Taranautes rush out on deck to observe and fully experience a unique moment. The crew made the acquaintance of a Risso’s dolphin between Oran and the Balearic Islands, and more recently, a group of bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Port-Cros.

This year the Tara Mediterranean expedition will traverse the Pelagos Sanctuary several times. An international marine space dedicated to the protection of cetaceans, the area comprises 87,500 km² inhabited by 8 species of marine mammals. Alain Barcelo, head of the scientific service of the National Park of Port-Cros, in charge of public relations for the Sanctuary, describes the importance of the Pelagos Agreement.

Where is the Sanctuary located?

Pelagos forms a large triangle extending from Sardinia northwards to Hyères, and Italy. It includes all the waters surrounding Corsica. It’s an immense Marine Protected Area dedicated to marine mammals in the Mediterranean.

Taking full effect in 2002, the Pelagos Agreement was signed by France, Monaco and Italy in November 1999. It aims to protect cetaceans and make their presence compatible with all the activities taking place in this space. This is a huge Sanctuary, unique in its kind, and includes regions of the high seas.

Eight species of cetaceans are regularly present in the Sanctuary: the fin whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, pilot whale, common dolphin and beaked whale. Other species occasionally cross this area – humpback whales, for example. The numbers vary depending on the season: let’s say tens of thousands of striped dolphins, and a few hundred fin whales.
What are the main threats to these animals?

These animals are threatened by human activities, which are numerous in the Sanctuary. Maritime traffic can lead to collisions between ships and large mammals such as the fin whale or the sperm whale. Our goal is to develop methods to protect marine mammals and make their presence compatible with these activities. There are lots of pleasure boats and nautical activities in the area – sources of disturbance for the animals.
Among the threats to these species, the Sanctuary’s website also lists chemical pollution. What about plastic pollution ?

Ongoing studies show that pollutants attach themselves to the plastic and are ingested by organisms throughout the food chain. A wide range of common chemicals are found in very high levels of concentration at the top of the food chain in marine mammals. We know that comparing a species of toothed whale present in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean whale concentrates the most chemicals in its tissues. Macro-plastics are troublesome in themselves, but even worse, they degrade and become the micro-plastics that we find throughout the food chain.

What are the measures implemented by Pelagos?

We have tools for communication and raising public awareness. By going to the Pelagos website in two or three clicks, visitors have access to the “Become Ambassadors” page. Simply read the code of conduct, agree to respect it, and make it known to boaters. The public can thus share the goals of the Sanctuary and make every effort to protect the species encountered: be alert for signs of disturbance, respect the zones and distances for approaching the cetaceans, etc.

Faced with problems of collisions, the Association“Souffleurs d’écume” partnered with a private company to design a computer program for commercial navigators: the REPCET system. This device allows boats to identify in real time the position of marine mammals, and alert other vessels equipped with the program.

Finally, for 2 years Pelagos has been developing partnerships with coastal towns and cities. 30 municipalities have signed a charter engaging them to contribute to the conservation of marine mammals. These municipalities relay the message of conservation to the general public.

Other measures are aimed at operators of whale-watching boats (for which we are developing a certification), but also maritime traffic, protection activities, and professional fishing. We have lots of ideas for encouraging the presence of these majestic animals that live so close to our shores. It is essential to talk with seafarers, because all of them share our goals.

Interview by Noëlie Pansiot

Watch the video presentation of the Pelagos Sanctuary