30 yrs of conservation measures for small cetaceans in European seas

March 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North-East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS) – a regional environmental treaty of the UN.

Concerns over the impacts of human activities on small cetaceans led to the negotiation of ASCOBANS under the auspices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). The Agreement was concluded on March 17, 1992, and has subsequently been signed by 10 countries.

Cetaceans are highly migratory species that cross international borders and their conservation depends therefore on transboundary measures. The core objective of ASCOBANS is to achieve and maintain a favourable conservation status for small cetaceans in the waters of northern and western Europe. The agreement covers dolphins and all toothed whales occurring in its area, a release from the CMS said.

Anthropogenic pressures such as bycatch, noise pollution, chemical pollution, and overfishing threaten many small cetacean populations.

UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen said: “As UNEP commemorates its 50th anniversary, ASCOBANS – an important specialized environmental treaty that we are so proud of as part of the UNEP family – marks 30 years of its existence … 30 years of fostering effective international collaboration for the conservation of small cetaceans in European seas …. 30 years of supporting international action grounded in science …. 30 years of protecting species from the onslaught of human activity and 30 years of demonstrating that transboundary action for the environment can unify governments and people.”

The Jastarnia Plan is a conservation strategy for the recovery of this vulnerable population, which is currently assessed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, with fewer than 500 individuals remaining. The recovery plan recommends that countries invest more in the development of alternative fishing methods that reduce the risk of bycatch.

ASCOBANS Executive Secretary, Amy Fraenkel said: “ASCOBANS has proven to be an effective framework for international collaboration and collective action, among governments, scientists, policy makers, and partner organisations. It provides a platform to agree on tangible solutions to key threats, such as bycatch and underwater noise. It also provides science-based advice and guidance to inform decisions on how to mitigate these threats.”

Marine debris, including abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) and ingestion of other plastics, is also a threat to cetaceans and has a negative impact on a substantial number of marine mammals.

Underwater noise and prey depletion are other issues. With climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss affecting small cetaceans, much work remains and ASCOBANS continue to have an important role to help ensure the well-being of these key species.

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