With the adoption of the highest protection status for the Cuvier’s beaked whale within the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) last week at the 11th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Quito, Ecuador, the planned oil exploration activities in the Balearic Islands take another blow. The conservation groups Alianza Mar Blava, OceanCare and NRDC consequently expect a negative environmental impact statement (EIS) to be issued from the Spanish Ministry of the Environment.

The proposal to gain the highest protection status for this species had been developed by the Spanish Ministry of the Environment, became a joint proposal by the European Union and was adopted per consensus at the CMS COP11. The initiative based on recommendations by scientific bodies will certainly have an impact on the management of human activities in core habitats of this species.

The decision by the Spanish Ministry of the Environment to refuse granting a licence for seismic surveys off Malaga in the Alboran Sea in October this year is already regarded as a milestone in environmental policy in the Mediterranean by recognizing the potential impacts of such activities. The official statement for the negative EIS is based on the conclusion that “measures provided in the Environmental Impact Study do not offer sufficient guarantees to correct the impacts that this activity could generate”.

The Cuvier’s Beaked whale is a rare deep diving species which is particularly vulnerable to underwater noise. Among its core habitats in the Mediterranean Sea are regions in the Alboran Sea as well as off the Balearic Islands within Spanish waters, as well as the Hellenic Trench in Greek waters. The Cuvier’s beaked whale is the whale species most involved in single species mass stranding events (45.8% of all recorded mass strandings). 54 of the recorded mass strandings involving this species 25, involving in total 106 animals, occurred in the Mediterranean Sea. Strandings significantly correlated with navy exercises, but also seismic surveys.

“Alongside the Cuvier’s beaked whale, 24 cetacean species would be affected by underwater noise caused by seismic oil and gas explorations in the waters of the Balearic Islands. For this reason, and because compensatory measures are not possible, the environmental impact statement can only reject the plans by the petroleum company Cairn Energy”, says Carlos Bravo, coordinator with the local Alianza Mar Blava.

Seismic Surveys using airguns which submit explosions with up to 260 dB, directed to the seabed around every 10 seconds over several weeks or even months, are among the most intense and loudest sounds created by humans and may have significant impacts on marine wildlife beyond whale species.

“The ruling whether seismic surveys can proceed in the waters of the Balearic Islands posing a threat also to important habitats for Cuvier’s beaked whales will be a judgement day for how serious decision makers take species conservation. Based on the facts on the table, we are convinced that the Spanish Ministry of Environment is left with no other choice than to reject the Cairn application and any others to come”, affirms Nicolas Entrup, speaking on behalf of the international conservation organisations OceanCare and NRDC.