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The law regarding the observation of cetaceans in the wild – the continuous disrespect of the code of conduct

The development of dolphin-watching activities is an undeniable educational resource, increasing collective awareness of the need to protect cetaceans. However, if not done properly it raises issues concerning their conservation and well-being. These activities must be carried out in a sustainable way, while respecting the animals’ natural habitat. It is also in the economic interest of dolphin-watching companies to respect this law and protect these natural resources, both the animals and the ocean.

The 2006 Portuguese law (Decreto-Lei n.º 9/2006) regarding the observation of cetaceans in the wild reconciles these two interests. These rules are necessary for the conservation of cetaceans, and must be known by the general public and the entities and companies that use the ocean.

During our last surveys on Ketos and aboard our partners’ vessels our team has observed maneuvers that do not respect the current law, and therefore do not respect the conservation of these marine animals. 

Early July 2023 sighting, with bottlenose dolphins

Last July 1st was one of the worst cases that our team has witnessed so far: 22 boats in the near proximity of a group of bottlenose dolphins (𝘛𝘶𝘳𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘱𝘴 𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘴). This is more than 7 times the allowed number of boats and is enough to frighten anyone!

Most of these boats were not licensed dolphin-watching vessels, but other touristic operators, private boats, and even jetskis, which are not allowed to approach cetaceans at all. For the other vessels the law defines a hierarchy, giving research vessels and licensed dolphin-watching operators priority over other types of boats. With this many boats around, the law dictates that any other type of vessel has to wait outside of the approach zone and may only start their observation when the “priority boats” have left the area, to respect the maximum allowed number of three boats.

With 22 boats, it is inevitable that the engine noise disturbed the group of cetaceans. This can cause stress and make it difficult, if not impossible, for the animals to rest, find food and communicate with each other (imagine how hard it would be with 22 boat motors surrounding you!). These are indispensable activities for the survival of these animals in the ocean. Also, pregnant females, calves, newborns and juveniles are particularly vulnerable to these types of pressure. 

Here is a little reminder about what the law says:

  • It is forbidden to get closer than 30 meters to an animal or group, and forbidden to allow more than 3 boats within 100 meters
  •  If there are more vessels in the area, coordinate your approach manoeuvre through the radio.
  •  Stay a maximum of 30 minutes with the animal or group.

To conclude, AIMM urges all parties that are regularly involved with these activities, as well as the local authorities, to be more aware of this reality happening in our region on a daily basis.

We all need to rethink how we manage our own behavior and act towards the animals we find in our ocean. They are considered a natural resource that is being capitalised and it is our responsibility to make this exploitation sustainable. After all, these are wild animals playing an important role in the ecosystem, and  do not belong to any of us.

To find out more about this law, you can read the Code of Conduct section on our website, which summarizes all this in a simple way!

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