Canary and Madeira Islands IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

50,006 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Sperm whale – Physeter macrocephalus

Criterion A; B (2)

Bryde’s whale – Balaenoptera edeni

Criterion B (2)

Common bottlenose dolphin – Tursiops truncatus

Criterion B (1,2)

Short-finned pilot whale – Globicephala macrorhynchus

Criterion B (1,2)

Cuvier’s beaked whale  – Ziphius cavirostris

Criterion B (1, 2)

Blainville’s beaked whale  – Mesoplodon densirostris

Criterion B (1)

Atlantic spotted dolphin – Stenella frontalis

Criterion B (2)

Common dolphin – Delphinus delphis

Criterion B (2)

Marine Mammal Diversity 

Criterion D (2)

Tursiops truncatus, Globicephala macrorhynchus, Stenella frontalis, Delphinus delphis, Ziphius cavirostris, Physeter macrocephalus, Balaenoptera edeni, Stenella coeruleoalba, Steno bredanensis, Grampus griseus, Mesoplodon densirostris



The Madeira archipelago and the Canary Islands are important for 11 of the 21 cetacean species that regularly occur in the area. This IMMA is located in the subtropical East Atlantic, not far from the Northwest Africa upwelling area, and is influenced by the Azores and Canary currents. The area is at the boundary between the distributional ranges of cetacean species normally associated with tropical and temperate waters. The area encompasses a diversity of important habitats for cetaceans such as islands, with insular shelves and canyons, seamounts, oceanographic fronts, deep sea, and open ocean habitats. Island-associated common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) are resident in Madeira archipelago and in the Canary Islands. In latter archipelago, there are also island-associated Blainville beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) and Curvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris). Additional species use the area seasonally to feed, rest, socialise, and breed, while others pass through the area during their migratory and nomadic movements. The islands are also known to regularly host aggregations of sperm whales.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability

The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is classified globally as Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List (Taylor et al., 2019). The IMMA encompasses seamounts and open water habitats used by the species in the central east Atlantic, namely for groups of females and calves (Freitas et al., 2004; Pérez-Gil et al., 2015; Fais et al., 2016; Alves et al., 2018; Correia et al., 2020).

Sperm whales can be sighted in all months of the year in Madeira and the Canary Islands (Freitas et al., 2004; Martín et al., 2014). In the latter archipelago there are two peaks of sightings (April-May and October-November) and some animals appear to show some degree of site fidelity, given that 25 of 141 photo-identified animals have been re-sighted (Martín et al., 2014). The last abundance estimate using Distance sampling methodology during 2009-2010, was 220 individuals (95% CI=117-413) (Fais et al., 2010, 2016); this number of animals has the capacity to produce 2.42 offspring per year (1.1% of the total number of animals) (Whitehead, 2002). Considering that 2.32 sperm whales/year on average are reported stranded with signs of collision, it is highly likely that the mortality rate due to collision of the sperm whale in the Canary Islands exceeds the species’ own natural recruitment capabilities (Fais et al., 2016). Although there is no information on abundance trends for the species in the IMMA area, it can be considered as seriously threatened in the Canary Islands.

Criterion B: Distribution and Abundance

Sub-criterion B1: Resident populations

Island-associated resident populations of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) are present in the Madeira archipelago (Alves et al., 2013; Dinis et al., 2016), with estimated abundances of 183 animals (n=183; IC95%=155 – 218) and 140 animals (95%CI: 131–151), respectively (Dinis, 2014; Alves et al.,2015).

In the Canary Islands, sightings of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) can occur throughout the year on all the islands (Martín et al., 1992; Politi et al., 1996; Ritter, 1996; Carrillo & Tejedor, 2002), with communities that show high fidelity to specific areas, where they are considered residents (e.g. SAC Franja Marina de Mogán and Franja Marina de Teno Rasca) (Martín & Carrillo, 2000; Carrillo & Tejedor, 2002; Marrero & Fernández, 2018). However, movement of individuals between islands of the archipelago has been observed (Tobeña et al., 2014).

There are also known resident short-finned pilot whales in the coastal waters of the southwest of Tenerife Island (Heimlich-Boran, 1993; Montero & Martín, 1993; Carrillo & Tejedor, 2002; Servidio, 2014; Marrero et al., 2016; Marrero & Fernández, 2018; Servidio et al., 2019). The short-finned pilot whales in Southwestern Tenerife were estimated between 636 (95%CI: 602–671) and 1,247 animals (95%CI: 920–1 690) depending on whether or not possibly transient animals were considered in the estimate (Servidio, 2014).  More recent estimates (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020) using capture-recapture techniques by photo-identification for the same area, show that the local community of the species has remained relatively stable in the past several years, with 362 individuals considered as residents (ICI=252-746) (Marrero et al., 2016; Marrero & Fernández, 2018; Pimentel et al., 2021; García-Pastor et al., 2021).

Other resident island-associated species are Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) and Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) in El Hierro Island (Aguilar de Soto, 2006; Aparicio et. al., 2006; Reyes Suárez, 2018). Both resident beaked whale populations appear to be small, with photo-ID studies conducted between 2012 and 2015 yielding mark-recapture estimates of 33 (95% CI: 24-46) island-associated Blainville’s beaked whales and 39 (95% CI: 34-44) island-associated Cuvier’s beaked whales (Reyes Suárez, 2018). Blainville’s beaked whales are also considered a resident species in the southwest of Tenerife (SAC Franja Marina de Teno-Rasca), where they can be sighted throughout the year with some individuals being re-sighted in up to 12 different occasions since 2012 (Montañés, 2020). The total estimate of the Blainville’s beaked whale community in SW Tenerife, using capture-recapture techniques by photo-identification, was 137 individuals (n=137; IC95%=133-145) (As. Tonina. unpublished data). Although a detailed study to document movement between the islands has not been conducted, movement of animals has been observed between the islands of Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and Gran Canaria (As. Tonina. Data unpublished).

The resident animals of the above mentioned species are genetically part of wider and expectedly larger oceanic populations (Quérouil et al., 2007; Alves et al., 2013; Onoufriou et al., 2020), although there is evidence that the Cuvier’s beaked whale cluster of the Canary Islands has slightly lower diversity when compared to the remaining North Atlantic clusters (Onoufriou et al., 2020).

Sub-criterion B2: Aggregations

While some island-associated resident populations of common bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales are present around the Madeira archipelago and the Canary Islands, there are also fluctuating aggregations that occur year-round (Martin et al., 2003; Carrillo et al., 2010; Ritter, 2012; Freitas et al., 2014; Dinis et al., 2016; Alves et al., 2018). The short-finned pilot whales show varied degrees of site fidelity to the islands in each archipelago (e.g. Madeira and Tenerife and others), with some animals classified as residents (and core residents), and others as visitors or transients (Alves et al., 2013, Servidio et al., 2019, Esteban et al., 2022).

There is also evidence for aggregations with some degree of site fidelity of rough-toothed dolphins (Steno bredanensis) in the Canaries (e.g. La Gomera, Mayr, 2005). Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) are mostly present year-round in the IMMA, with the former having a marked seasonal inshore presence in Madeira and in the Canary Islands both in winter and spring, and the latter having a year-round presence in the Canary Islands and a seasonal presence in summer/autumn in Madeira (Freitas et al., 2004, Perez-Vallazza et al., 2008; Carrillo et al., 2010; Martín et al., 2011; Alves et al., 2018; Pérez-Gil et al., 2018; Saavedra et al., 2020).

The inshore and offshore waters of the Madeira archipelago and the Canary Islands are an important habitat for Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni), sperm whales, and Cuvier’s beaked whales. Bryde’s whales migrate seasonally into the area; sperm whales move between archipelagos and in offshore waters throughout the year; and Cuvier’s beaked whales are present in deeper waters, with some animals showing some degree of site fidelity, for example, at El Hierro Island (Martín et al., 2001; Carrillo et al., 2010; Ferreira et al., 2021, 2022; Correia et al., 2020; Reyes, 2018). The Bryde’s whales, sperm whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales use the IMMAs waters to feed and breed (e.g. Freitas et al., 2004, Martín et al., 2011, Alves et al., 2018, Freitas and Penry, 2021).

Sightings and distribution models confirm the aggregations of all the above-mentioned species in both Madeira archipelago and the Canary Islands (Freitas et al., 2004; Perez-Vallazza et al., 2008; Carrillo et al., 2010; Martín et al., 2011; Ruiz et al., 2011; Freitas et al., 2014; Freitas et al., 2019; Fernandez et al., 2021).

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas

The proposed IMMA includes a variety of habitats, including shallower nearshore waters, slope and canyon habitats around islands and seamounts, dynamic oceanographic features associated with currents and fronts, and deep open ocean waters (Heezen, 1959). These habitats are used differently by the 11 species that occur regularly in the area, including the striped dolphin (S. coeruleoalba), the Risso´s dolphin (Grampus griseus) and the species already mentioned above (Ritter, 2001, Martín, 2003, Perez-Vallazza et al., 2008, Carrillo et al., 2010, Martín et al., 2011, Ruiz et al., 2011, Freitas et al., 2012, Freitas et al., 2014, Alves et al., 2018). Nine other cetacean species also use the area with varied degrees of occurrence, namely, the Orca (Orcinus orca), the false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens), pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps), dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima), Gervais ́ beaked whale (M. europaeus), fin whale (B. physalus), sei whale (B. borealis), blue whale (B. musculus), minke whale (B. acutorostrata) and the Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)  (Díaz et al., 2000, Ritter, 2001, Martín, 2003, Freitas et al., 2004; Perez-Vallazza et al., 2008, Carrillo et al., 2010, Martín et al., 2011; Freitas et al., 2012, Freitas et. al., 2014, Alves et al., 2018).

Supporting Information

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