The marine mammals of the Dutch Caribbean: a comparison between EEZ sectors, contrasts and concerns

We here provide a synoptic overview and preliminary update of the marine mammals of the Dutch Caribbean EEZ based on 279 cetacean sighting and stranding records. The Dutch Caribbean EEZ is composed of two distinct sectors. One is centered around the leeward Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (71,000 km2) while the other is centered around the windward Dutch islands of Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten (22,000 km2). The previous principal review (of cetaceans) dating from 1998, was based on only 70 records from the leeward sector and confirmed the occurrence of some 13 species for Dutch Kingdom waters. Now, with a 4-fold increase in number of records, 19 species can be documented for the Dutch Kingdom waters (18 species in the leeward sector and 8 species in the windward sector).

The windward sector stands out for its large number of humpback whale sightings (45% of records) and may form part of its former (or current) calving grounds. This species remains relatively rare in the leeward sector (5% of records) and continues to be targeted by aboriginal fishing in its destination wintering grounds to the east, where the relict breeding population is having difficulty to rebound. The species is of growing interest to tourism in the region and urgently needs full protection from all fishing in the southern Caribbean. The leeward EEZ sector further lies down-stream from seasonal upwelling areas off Venezuela that support the largest fishery of the Caribbean. This sector stands out for its high occurrence of beaked whales and the Bryde’s whale. Marine mammal strandings are much more common here (26% of records) than in the northern sector (3% of records). Human induced mortalities (first suggested in 1974) and disturbance due to coastal tourism and recreation are key and growing concerns in the southern Dutch EEZ sector.

The marine mammal fauna of the Dutch Caribbean is evidently rich and varied but continues to suffer man-induced mortality and disturbance. Several nations, including the USA, the Dominican Republic and France, have recently established marine mammal sanctuaries in Caribbean waters. The Netherlands should consider doing the same.

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