With any formal certification process, a list of qualifying criteria is required to assess each potential candidate. The criteria set out the standards that must be met, the processes that must be in place and the important things that must be proven before any award is offered. It all sounds very formal and can be quite daunting when you first start to look into it, but when you delve a bit deeper, you may realise that those standards are things you are already doing every day.

Candidates must meet four main criteria before Whale Heritage Site status is designated. In this series of articles, we’re going to focus on explaining a bit more about each one in terms of what it means and how you can practically demonstrate the requirements that will set your unique part of the world on the road to becoming a Whale Heritage Site.

Here, we’re going to focus on Environmental, Social and Economic Sustainability.

What do we mean by this? Let’s break it down.

Environmental sustainability relates to the preservation of ecosystems and habitats that helps support thriving populations of whales and dolphins, whether resident or transient. For example, your coastal waters may be a designated Marine Protected Area or a Special Area of Conservation. You may have a specific cetacean protocol that multiple stakeholders have signed up to. There may be multiple organisations in your area that are advocating responsible interaction with the environment or local projects and initiatives that promote the conservation of marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

Enhancing the protection of the marine environment benefits not only cetaceans but also the community. Environmental sustainability means we are respecting and managing our ocean environment in a way that means it will be protected and maintained for future generations.

Social sustainability is another of the three key pillars of the sustainability cycle. Social sustainability refers to how individuals, communities and societies interact. For the Whale Heritage Site designation, we look for evidence of collaboration between people, businesses, tourism boards, NGOs and Government departments and the sharing of a common goal or purpose that not only benefit cetaceans but the communities within the proposed heritage site. Examples include capacity building; skills development; education and community outreach; citizen science and environmental awareness projects. The sharing of knowledge and research is also important, as are any other local initiatives that promote the Whale Heritage Site. It involves influencers and decision-makers working together to maintain the long term needs of the community. We know there are lots of communities within the WCA network that are doing great things in this area already.

Economic sustainability for Whale Heritage Sites is ensuring the protection of economic growth and activity whilst protecting the ecosystems and habitats that support this. We often hear this referred to as the Blue Economy.

According to the World Bank, the Blue Economy is defined as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.” There is economic value to be gained from protecting cetaceans, particularly in the whale-watching and marine tourism sector. There are many places around the world where livelihoods and the prosperity of local communities depend upon the presence of cetaceans.

Like everything in life, it’s all about achieving a healthy balance. The Whale Heritage Site certification formally recognises those areas that successfully achieve this balance or who are working towards sustainable management in these three areas.

A good example from an existing Whale Heritage Site is the WildOceans Blue Port project in Durban, South Africa. The project aims to clean and restore the Durban port ecosystem through engagement and collaboration with the port’s wider stakeholder community. It demonstrates how the current degraded state of the port is a severe challenge to sustainable development. Through working with the relevant authorities, this initiative has increased job creation and the stimulation of economic activity in the area. It has already enabled capacity-building, work experience and the acquisition of new skills for over 50 unemployed local youngsters whilst raising awareness of the environmental challenges.

We believe there are many communities within our partner network and across the world that can become Whale Heritage Site. Many outstanding destinations are strong advocates for responsible whale and dolphin watching that are also great environmental and conservation champions. One such place is Franja Marina Teno-Rasca in Tenerife, Spain. A recently approved Whale Heritage Candidate Site, this is an area that is a great example to any other aspiring candidates that are thinking of applying for the accreditation. They have a diverse range of engaged stakeholders supporting the process, including whale watching businesses, tourism boards, NGOs and scientists.

In highlighting the importance of this global certification programme to the local community, Mercedes Reyes of Whale Wise Eco Tours in Tenerife said: “Whale Heritage Site status would provide us with a strong tool to preserve our rich cetacean diversity and habitat; to embrace economic, social, and environmental benefits for our local communities; and to share this wonder with the world.”

Becoming a Whale Heritage Site is so much more than just a badge. It’s a vision for the future; a pledge to our children and children’s children. It’s a beacon for the global protection of whales and dolphins and it’s the gold standard for how sustainable practices and marine conservation can combine to support economic development.

Your area, your community and your corner of the world has great potential to become a world-class Whale Heritage Site destination and it may be a lot easier than you think. We are here to provide you with all the guidance and support you need to become a Candidate Site. Each potential site will have its unique means to satisfy the criteria. If you want to explore the possibility of becoming a Whale Heritage Site further or learn anything more about the criteria or the process itself, then get in touch with the WCA team today.

By Marie Harrington