Two MPAs located nearly 5000 km apart have formed a “sister sanctuary” arrangement to coordinate management of a shared population of humpback whales. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the northeast coast of the US, and the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic established the partnership in December 2006 to assist humpback whale recovery in the north Atlantic. The population of 900 whales migrates northward to Stellwagen Bank and the surrounding Gulf of Maine each spring and summer to feed, then returns to the Dominican Republic in the fall to mate and give birth.

“Coordinating management and research across these habitats moves us several steps closer to ensuring the health of this endangered species,” says Craig MacDonald, superintendent of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS). As sister sanctuaries, the two sites are launching several collaborative initiatives, including:

  • A joint workshop on whale-watch best practices to help develop low-impact tourism and sustainable economic development at both sites;
  • A sister sanctuary photo-identification project to establish a catalog of individual whales in the Dominican Republic, complementing an existing catalog from Stellwagen Bank;
  • An intern-exchange program to provide specialized training in education and scientific research; and
  • Public education tools, including a traveling exhibit and public service announcements, to raise awareness of the partnership and the economic importance of the whale population.

Idelisa Bonnelly of FUNDEMAR, an NGO that assists in managing the Dominican sanctuary, says the partnership will help manage a fast-growing tourism industry there. “The joint research effort to evaluate the whale-watching situation and tourist impacts will be important in developing harmonized management strategies,” she says. Stellwagen Bank already has a thriving whale-watch industry that assists in research, including photo-identification. Bonnelly adds the agreement is about more than species conservation. “It means that we need each other, that everyone is important – small countries and large ones,” she says. “We all have a role to play.”

Nathalie Ward of SBNMS, who helped negotiate the sister sanctuary arrangement, would like to see the partnership serve as a model for other MPAs in managing transboundary species. “Through changing public attitudes, improving scientific understanding, and developing effective models, the sister sanctuary initiative can extend its benefits well beyond the boundaries of the individual sites,” she says.

For more information:

Idelisa Bonnelly, FUNDEMAR, Socrates Nolasco No. 6, Apt. 401, Residencial Carla Pamela, Naco. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. E-mail:

Nathalie Ward, SBNMS, 175 Edward Foster Road, Scituate, MA 02066, USA. E-mail: