In 2002, we made the strategic decision to fund an expansion of our Research program into Latin America. Ecuador, an identified marine ecoregion where we have the capacity to grow and deepen our impact, is a breeding ground for stock G humpback whales and home to a population of common bottlenose dolphins. This project has provided more than 20 years of scientific information on the presence, status and threats to whale and dolphin populations in Ecuador. Our research and education on humpback whales in Ecuador paved the way for development of a sustainable whale-watching industry, improving the socioeconomic status of many Ecuadorians. In addition, our efforts have empowered coastal communities to better understand and take ownership of their natural resources.

While our initial marine conservation research centered exclusively on humpback whales—investigating their migration route and interchange with other locations—our focus today is on conducting year-round research surveys to better understand the population status of whale and dolphin species using these waters and what threats they face.

An important component of our ongoing research, based in the waters of Machalilla National Park with PWF offices in the town of Puerto Lopéz, is the creation of a comprehensive humpback whale photo-identification catalog—one of the largest datasets in the region. With this catalog, we can detect changes in whale populations over time and understand the complex life-history parameters of this long-lived species. Gathering and analyzing data, such as documenting key features and characteristics of individual whales including unique markings, scars and fluke patterns, allows us to track the movements and behaviors of populations we study and gain a deeper understanding of their ecology and biology.

As we grow our photo-ID catalog and build capacity for additional research projects, we are confident that our work will provide critical insights into the conservation and management of cetacean species populations in Ecuador.

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4 of the 5 major threats we research in this location

Bycatch (Fisheries Interactions)

Our research has revealed that bycatch is a significant threat to cetaceans in this region. We have documented numerous species becoming entangled and drowning in gillnets and even discovered marine mammals being used as bait in homemade fishing equipment. To help address this, we have developed a community reporting network that allows us to document stranded and entangled marine mammals to determine the extent of the issue. Our researchers are partnering with experts around the world to address entanglement in Latin America and work with the on-water community to develop mitigation strategies and provide assessment and response training.

Unsustainable Tourism

Whale watching tourism has been on the rise in Ecuador in recent years, particularly in the region of Puerto Lopez. The number of tourists visiting Machalilla National Park, which is a popular destination for whale watching, increases annually. This growth in tourism has positively impacted the local economy, with an estimated 85% of the Puerto Lopez population directly or indirectly involved in whale-watching tourism. However, the potential impacts of whale watching on the whales themselves is of concern. Whale-watching tour operators need to follow responsible and sustainable practices to minimize these dangers and ensure the continued success of this growing industry. As such, we provide annual training sessions to vessel operators in Machalilla National Park and emphasize our Be Whale Aware and Be Dolphin Wise codes of conduct to minimize any unintended consequences of whale watching.

Ocean Pollution

As the designated representative for the Humpback Whale Sentinel Program (HWSP), Pacific Whale Foundation plays a vital role in monitoring and addressing chemical pollution in Antarctica and its impact on the marine food web. Through our work in Ecuador, we collect biological samples from humpback whales as part of the program’s key objectives.

This program is one of the most comprehensive studies on persistent organic pollutants in cetaceans globally, providing critical insights into the extent and effects of chemical pollution on whale populations. By serving as the breeding stock G representative for the HWSP, we are contributing to a global effort to protect these majestic creatures and preserve the health of the world’s oceans.

Overall, our work highlights the urgent need for continued research and action to address the impact of human activities on the marine environment and underscores the critical role that organizations such as ours play in advancing this important cause.

Climate Change

In the last century, humans have been accelerating the rate of climate change to dangerous and unsustainable levels. The humpback whale, due to its long migration patterns and reliance on cool, nutrient-rich water, is a good indicator of how a changing climate is affecting productivity and health of ocean ecosystems.

As a leading research organization focused on the conservation of whales and their habitats, we’re excited to contribute to an international research project aimed at understanding how changing ocean conditions affect the recovery of whale populations in the Southern Hemisphere. This collaborative effort involves more than 25 researchers from five countries, all working together to gather and analyze data that can help us predict whale distributions under future climate change scenarios and investigate alterations that may influence the status of humpback whale populations.

By sharing our expertise and insights with this global research community, we are helping to build a more comprehensive understanding of the complex and interconnected factors that impact the health and survival of whales and other marine life.

Target Study Species

Bottlenose Dolphins

NMFS/MMPA Permit #21321