La Rochelle, France (7 jours/7)


Aerial Monitoring of the Marine Megafauna

This programme aims to produce an inventory of the spatial distribution of these species in metropolitan waters, to estimate their abundance and to identify the preferred habitats of cetaceans and seabirds (and more broadly of the pelagic megafauna) according to the seasons.

Scientists were also able to collect information on human activities at sea (fishing, maritime traffic, waste) in order to provide elements for assessing areas of interaction with human activities.

Sampling strategy defined by the objectives

The SAMM I campaigns, i.e. the first cycle, took place over two distinct seasons (winter 2011/12 and summer 2012) over the entire metropolitan EEZ extended to neighbouring European waters (559,000 km²). The sampling area was divided into three bathymetric strata (relative to depth) covering the continental shelf, the slope and the abyssal plain.

The SAMM II campaigns corresponding to the 2nd cycle (7-10 years later) will be broken down by seafront and are scheduled for 2019 and 2021.

Unique and useful results for conservation

The SAMM I campaigns mobilised 15 observers, 3 planes and their pilots for 7 months. The effort made (100,000 km and 600 hours of observation) and the set of data obtained were unprecedented. During the two campaigns, the teams collected: 3,500 observations of cetaceans, 35,000 observations of birds, 500 observations of marine turtles, 900 observations of sharks or rays, 4,300 observations of large fish (mainly moonfish), 2,500 observations of boats and 28,000 observations of macro-waste.

Highly mobile marine species

From these data, it was possible to produce density and abundance estimates for birds and marine mammals, as well as to model their distribution (using a geostatistical approach) and their preferred habitats (habitat models) as a function of the season. These results confirm that marine species are highly mobile and can occupy very different areas from one season to another. Between winter and summer, they also show varied ecological preferences (temperature, chlorophyll, depth, etc.).

The SAMM I campaigns are profoundly changing the way we represent the distribution of marine animals. Among the most surprising results, the bottlenose dolphin, which was described as an essentially coastal species in the Mediterranean, actually has an undeniably offshore winter distribution.

In the Atlantic, biologists have discovered the presence of the harbour porpoise along the coasts of the Bay of Biscay in winter as far as the Basque Country and have shown a strong area of concentration around the Pas-de-Calais Strait. Its summer distribution is also a surprise, this animal, which was thought to be very coastal, has been encountered as far as the continental slope off Brittany.

Seabirds also had a few surprises in store: observations from the SAMM I campaign showed that the pygmy gull, whose presence in winter was known in the Mediterranean, was in fact abundant during this season, with an essentially oceanic distribution.

Overall, the SAMM programme revealed the major seasonal distribution patterns for around twenty groups of cetacean and seabird species, as well as turtles and sharks.

Establishing new offshore marine protected areas

The lessons learned from SAMM greatly improve our knowledge of cetaceans and seabirds. These results have already been applied for the first time: they feed into the process of designating new Natura 2000 sites offshore and contribute to the evaluation of the existing coastal network and its coherence in relation to the global distribution of species.

SAMM Report