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Montevideo, June 23rd 2024 - 21:33 UTC



Antarctica tour companies working closely with IAATO in conservation measures

Monday, June 10th 2024 - 09:10 UTC
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Since its launch in 2022-23 season, data gathered through V-CaPS has contributed to improved protections for whales, implemented by all IAATO operators along the Antarctic Peninsula. Since its launch in 2022-23 season, data gathered through V-CaPS has contributed to improved protections for whales, implemented by all IAATO operators along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Data collected by tour companies operating in Antarctica is bolstering conservation measures for whales and seals along the region’s Peninsula, according to a piece by Travel and Tour World news site.

The Voluntary Cetacean and Pinniped Sightings Program (V-CaPS), initiated in 2022 by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), tasks field staff on IAATO operator vessels with documenting whale and seal sightings and sharing this information with the association to map wildlife presence around the western Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands.

Since its launch in the 2022-23 Antarctic season, the data gathered through V-CaPS has already contributed to improved protections for whales, implemented by all IAATO operators along the Antarctic Peninsula. These measures include a trial extension of the Gerlache Strait whale slow-down zone, established by IAATO in 2019, and the introduction of a new slow-down zone around the South Shetland Islands and the Elephant Island group in 2023.

IAATO Executive Director Gina Greer, said: “The V-CaPS Program is an example of how our membership is utilizing its in-depth knowledge, obtained through extensive experience in the region, to support the protection of wildlife.

“IAATO Operators have shared their observations anecdotally for years, but the V-CaPS Program enables us to collate that data more formally and allows us to make more informed decisions to protect the wildlife in Antarctica.”

For over two centuries, marine mammals in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic were extensively hunted, pushing fur seals, elephant seals, humpback whales, and blue whales to the brink of extinction. However, recent decades have seen population recoveries thanks to international conservation efforts.

Since its establishment, IAATO has proactively developed operational procedures that enable visitors to observe Antarctic wildlife safely in their natural habitats.

In 2019, IAATO operators implemented measures to mitigate vessel strike risks in whale-rich areas, introducing geo-fenced time areas in the Gerlache Strait and adjacent waters from January 1 to May 30, and in Marta Passage entering Crystal Sound from February 1 to May 30.

In 2021, IAATO operators strengthened these measures by mandating a 10-kn speed restriction for vessels operating in IAATO geofenced time areas, and by providing whale watching and avoidance training for all bridge teams in areas where whales are frequently seen.

During the 2022-23 Antarctic season, through the V-CaPS program, IAATO encouraged member vessels to voluntarily submit data on cetacean and pinniped sightings. This effort aimed to establish a baseline of where wildlife and tourism activities overlap on the Peninsula, complementing historical knowledge and recent scientific studies. Whales were consistently sighted in the Gerlache Strait during the first half of the season, and near the South Shetland Islands throughout the season.

Recognizing recent and historical data, IAATO members agreed to trial an extension of the Gerlache Strait geo-fenced time area to cover most of the Antarctic tour season, from November 1 to May 30. They also added a South Shetland Islands geo-fenced time area from November 1 to May 30 for the 2023-24 season. Data collected throughout the 2023-24 season further supported these proactive measures.

Large groups of humpbacks and orcas were present in the Gerlache Strait and surrounding areas within the slow-down zone from November 1 to December 31, 2023. Approximately 30 percent of total cetacean sightings in this zone occurred during this early season extension.

Similarly, the South Shetland Islands and Elephant Island slow-down zones hosted many large aggregations of whales, particularly fin and humpback whales, throughout the season.

Data collected by IAATO operators participating in the V-CaPS program will continue to inform the association’s management decisions during the 2024-25 season and beyond.

Guides and guests on IAATO member vessels have been contributing marine mammal sighting reports to scientific research for years, including to the global citizen science project Happywhale. Ted Cheeseman, founder of Happywhale, remarked: “We have received thousands of whale photographs since we started in 2015. This data was key in illustrating the need for measures that protect whales from ship strike risk.”

“We are pleased with IAATO’s quick, proactive approach to protecting whales by establishing slow-down zones in 2019, expanding upon these initial safeguards, and creating the V-CaPS program to better understand where whales are most at risk.”

Tags: Gina Greer, IAATO.

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