How Dominica's designation of the world's first sperm whale sanctuary can help fight climate change

Sperm whale image via Canva Pro.

There's a reason Dominica is called “The Nature Island.” Lush and verdant, it is known for its rainforests and rivers, sulphur springs and waterfalls. The ability to immerse yourself in the local flora and fauna makes it one of the region's most idyllic eco-tourism destinations — and now, it is also being lauded for creating the world's first sanctuary for sperm whales.

The designation of nearly 800 square kilometres (300 square miles) of ocean on the western side of the island, where the endangered species currently feeds and nurses its young, is a significant move, according to an Associated Press report. Not only can it help improve the whales’ chances of reproduction and survival, but it will also go a long way in battling the effects of climate change.

This is because sperm whales, which can reach up to 15 metres (50 feet) in length, defecate near the surface — all non-vital functions are suspended once they dive to depths of up to 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) — and plankton benefits tremendously from the nutrient-rich faeces, increasing their populations as a result. These plankton blooms, by capturing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, are vital soldiers in the climate change fight, and Dominica's role cannot be underestimated, since sperm whales that live in the island's waters have been found to poop more than their counterparts in other locations. More excrement equals more plankton, which translates into more CO2, a greenhouse gas, being trapped.

Dominica's prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, who also chairs the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) until the end of 2023, has been very outspoken about the adverse effects of the climate crisis on Small Island Developing States (SIDS). In 2018, his country was ravaged by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm. Skerrit, along with other regional leaders, have been making it clear at the last few COP conferences, that the creation of a Loss and Damage Fund is imperative. Island nations like the Caribbean, which contribute the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, are on the frontline of the adverse effects of the climate crisis as, among other things, they are vulnerable to storms and sea level rise, and do not have economies that can pay for the massive losses their countries experience.

Now, Dominica's sperm whale sanctuary is doing its part to help counteract the adverse effects of climate change. It is estimated that fewer than 500 sperm whales live in Dominica's waters, but with young males leaving the pod at some stage, and females typically producing a single calf every five to seven years, their protection is paramount.

The new protected area, which will allow sustainable artisanal fishing and delineate an international shipping lane, will help augment the sperm whale population by reducing the numbers that are injured or killed by ships or become entangled in fishing nets. The government plans to monitor the area to ensure that the rules are respected, and the tourism regulations surrounding whale watching are enforced, though visitors will still be able to swim with the whales and observe them from boats, albeit in limited numbers.

The announcement, made on November 13, quickly garnered international attention, in both mainstream and social media.

The Facebook group Ocean Azores hoped the Dominican authorities would not let “just anyone swim with them, as that can be disturbing to the animals,” and wondered whether the Azores could follow the Caribbean island's lead and create a whale sanctuary of its own.

Facebook user Isabella Askari said her “heart is full” to see “a country stand[ing] up for marine life”:

[Dominica has] such strict regulations regarding eco tourism. The local scientists and captains know many of these whales by name and can even tell you details of their personalities. They are part of the community and it shows. Dominica sets an example for the world and I hope others begin to learn.

Kelly Cromie added, “Happy to hear these gentle giants are finally being protected!”

Trinidadian environmentalist Ian Lambie shared the good news and some interesting facts about sperm whales, noting that “Dominica has the most social groups, who are used to human presence, offering exceptional interactions.” He added, “Congratulations to the Government of Dominica for this initiative.”

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