Marine Mammals

Marine Mammals in the Wider Caribbean Region

The marine mammal fauna of the Wider Caribbean Region (WCR) is diverse, and marine mammals have significant ecological, aesthetic and economic value to the countries and territories of the region. Regional success in managing and conserving marine mammals will ultimately depend in the first instance on countries’ commitment to build their internal capacities and to implement a regional concept by establishing conservation priorities, standards, and strategies for marine mammal conservation and education.

At least 32 species of marine mammals have been documented from the region—six species of baleen whales (Mysticeti), 24 species of toothed whales (Odontoceti), one sirenian (the West Indian manatee), and three pinnipeds (the Caribbean monk seal, the hooded seal, and the California sea lion). For many of these species, waters of the region serve as primary habitat for critical activities that include feeding, mating and calving. Although some species have been studied extensively elsewhere, data are scarce concerning the biology, life history, distribution and behavior of most cetacean (whale and dolphin) and manatee populations in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico are scarce. The WCR is the one of only two regions in the world to have experienced the extinction of a marine mammal species (the Caribbean monk seal) in the past 250 years.

According to SPAW's Marine Mammal Action Plan, the main threats to marine mammals include:

FISHERIES INTERACTIONS -Mortality or serious injury due, for example to incidental capture in nets or being hooked on lines; Deliberate mortality or serious injuries in hunts that target marine mammals; and Ecological effects from, for example, competition for food, displacement, or damage to habitat.


POLLUTION AND MARINE MAMMAL HEALTH - Near shore environments, in particular, are exposed to a wide range of pollutants including persistent
organochlorines, heavy metals, litter, oils (petroleum hydrocarbons) and nutrients from a variety of marine and land-based sources, including port, industrial and agricultural activities. Some of those pollutants concentrate in the food web. Although evidence for links between chemical pollutants and
the health of exposed marine mammals remains largely circumstantial, there is a growing concern that exposure to contaminants can increase susceptibility to disease and affect reproductive performance in marine mammals. Marine mammals are considered “sentinel species” because they may provide early warnings of changes or threats to environmental and/or human health. Their long lifespans and mammalian (i.e. human-like) general physiology contribute to their utility in this regard.

Laws, Regulations

Several species of marine mammals found in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico are listed in Annex 1 to Article 64 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982) and are also listed as endangered or vulnerable in the Annexes of multilateral agreements, including UNEP’s Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol (SPAW, 1990), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES, 1973), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS, 1979, also known as the Bonn Convention) and the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW, 1946).

Under Article 65 of UNCLOS, States are to “co-operate with a view to the  conservation of marine mammals and in the case of cetaceans shall in particular work through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management and study.” Article 194(5) states that “measures must be taken to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species” Article 244(2) encourages States to “actively promote the flow of scientific data and information and the transfer of knowledge resulting from marine scientific research.” CITES lists all of the baleen whales, the sperm whale, the tucuxi and the West Indian manatee in Appendix I as species in danger of extinction that are or may be threatened by trade. Most other small cetaceans that occur in the WCR are in Appendix II, as species that may become threatened with extinction unless trade is regulated.

The CMS lists all great whales except for the Bryde’s whale on Appendix I as “endangered” and most small cetaceans on Appendix II, which means that their conservation would benefit significantly from international cooperation. The CMS provides a mechanism for the development of legally binding regional agreements on marine mammals.

Currently, the Schedule of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body created to implement the ICRW, treats the baleen whales and the sperm whale as protected species. Some members do not recognize the IWC’s competence over small cetaceans. However, the IWC Scientific Committee’s Subcommittee on Small Cetaceans reviews the status of populations and strategies for addressing specific conservation problems facing them.

What is the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) doing?

The immediate goal is of the recently approved MMAP is to assist participating governments in the region in their efforts to develop and improve marine mammal conservation policies and practices. The Plan is intended to provide a framework for activities at the national level and regional or international co-operation, on the basis of respect for the sovereign rights of the participating governments. After SPAW Parties have adopted this Action Plan, individual countries may prioritize issues and threats through the development and
implementation of their National Recovery Plans.

The MMAP consists of five target areas: increased scientific knowledge; enhanced public understanding; protective measures; policy development and improvement of law and its application.

The long-term objectives are:

  • Conservation and recovery of all marine mammal species and populations, and protection of their habitats in the region (e.g. feeding, breeding, and calving grounds, movement corridors, etc.);
  • Establishment of regional cooperation programmes to increase scientific, technical, and educational exchange among relevant national, regional, and international organizations.

In this regard the CEP is developing projects aimed to assist with the implementation of MMAP priorities identified by the SPAW parties and addressing areas such as:

  • Assess and maintain information on status, distribution, abundance, and threats to marine mammals in the region and as species and populations;
  • Management of marine mammal strandings and capacity building;
  • Non-lethal and sustainable marine mammal economic activities, such as marine mammal watching.
  • Mitigation of human-related threats to marine mammals;
  • Protect habitats in the WCR that are “significant” to marine mammals;
  • Improve understanding of the biology of all marine mammals, especially those that are threatened currently or that have been affected by past or present human activities;
  •  Address risks and uncertainty when making decisions, and ensure that a precautionary approach is taken.


What can you do?

  • Get informed about marine mammals in your country and the region. Contact national and local environmental organizations and research institutions.
  • Promote awareness and education. Eliminate or reduce your use of items that can end up affecting marine mammals. These include marine litter such as plastics (bags, fishing line, balloons, six-pack holders,  styrofoam).
  • Follow local marine mammal regulations - never follow or chase animals and remain at a respectful distance. Other disturbances should also be reduced e.g. engine noise, prolonged viewing, rapid speed.
  • Marine mammals can become stressed by human proximity so avoid swimming with, touching, and feeding marine mammals. If you see an animal that may be stranded, call your local stranding centre or emergency services - they will know how to contact stranding network members wherever possible.
  • Find out about marine mammals in captivity in your area. Find out if they are being kept in accordance with accepted guidelines, and if the facility conducts education and research activities in support of marine mammal conservation.


Links/relevant documents


Marine Mammal Action Plan - Wider Caribbean Region

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

U.S. Marine Mammal Commission


Mote Marine Laboratory




IUCN Species Survival Commission