Slope Front of the Argentine Shelf IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

634 111 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Southern right whale – Eubalaena australis

Criterion C (2, 3)

Southern elephant seal – Mirounga leonina

Criterion C (2, 3)

South American fur seal – Arctocephalus australis

Criterion C (2)

South American sea lion – Otaria byronia

Criterion C (2)

Sei whales – Balaenoptera borealis

Criterion A; C (3)

Sperm whales – Physeter macrocephalus

Criterion A

Marine Mammal Diversity 

Criterion D (2)

Eubalaena australis, Mirounga leonina, Arctocephalus australis, Otaria byronia, Orcinus orca, Balaenoptera borealis, Grampus griseus, Physeter macrocephalus, Globicephala melas

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The Slope Front of the Argentine Shelf is one of the most productive oceanic fronts in the world, with a key ecological and functional role for the Patagonian marine ecosystem. This highly productive area of the outer shelf extends more than 2,000 km in a roughly north-south direction. It supports a complex trophic web and is a feeding area and migratory corridor for many top predators. It is an area of intense foraging for male southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) and southern right whales (Eubalaena australis). At the same time, it represents a migration corridor for of southern right whales and elephant seals between their breeding and reproductive areas to feeding grounds.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability

Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) have been recorded in association with fisheries around and beyond the 200m isobath in the northern part of the IMMA, near the Brazil-Falkland (Malivinas) Confluence, and in Tierra del Fuego and Islas Falkland Islands (Malvinas). Interaction between sperm whales and longline fisheries has been frequently reported in Argentine waters (Mandiola et al., 2019). The species has also been recorded in the northern Slope Front of the Argentine Shelf near vessels conducting marine seismic surveys (Mandiola et al., 2015) and in areas of hydrocarbon exploration and production. The species is considered vulnerable (VU) in Argentina (SAyDS-SAREM and Mandiola et al., 2019) and on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Taylor et al., 2019),

Sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis) are assessed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, due to population reduction in commercial whaling that occurred in the 20th century. Fortunately, the population size indicates that the global population of mature animals may have recovered to around 30% of the 1948 level by 2018 (Cooke 2018). Sei whales use this IMMA as a migratory corridor.

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas

Three main feeding areas have been identified for the population of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) that are known to mate, calve, and nurse their young in the coastal waters of Peninsula Valdés: 1) the Patagonian Shelf, 2) the Argentine Basin and 3) the region around the Scotia Sea (Valenzuela et al. 2009, Vighi et al. 2014, Zerbini et al. 2016, 2018, Valenzuela et al. 2018).

Satellite telemetry studies have revealed that there is individual variability in the movement patterns of animals of different age, sex and reproductive class (Zerbini et al. 2016, 2018). Once they leave the calving grounds, the main feeding area for both males and females without a calf, is the outer Patagonian Shelf and the shelf break (Zerbini, unpublished data) This area is also the location where illegal Soviet pelagic whaling killed hundreds of SRWs in the 1960s (Tormosov et al. 1998). Later in the season, some individuals remain on the shelf, while other whales move offshore and to higher latitudes. Females, with calves, on the other hand, typically migrate across the Patagonian shelf towards the Argentinian Basin. Subsequently, these whales either return towards the shelf or move into higher latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean (Zerbini et al., unpublished data). Right whale prey items in this IMMA are thought to be copepods and euphausiids, with the former being more predominant in the diet of southern right whales feeding north of 40°S, the latter more common south of 50°S and varying proportions of the two prey items in the intermediate latitudes (Tormosov et al. 1998).

This IMMA includes important foraging areas for southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) that breed rookeries and haulouts in the Península Valdés (Argentina).  While Southern Elephant Seals breed at 14 areas continental or islands, five of these are responsible for 99% of pup production. More than 5% of pup production takes place at the Peninsula Valdes (Lewis et al. 1998). The population size of the elephant seals of Peninsula Valdes was estimated at 40,764 individuals in 1995. The Peninsula Valdes/Malvinas colonies have increased in recent times (Lewis et al. 1998, Galimberti et al. 2001, SCAR EGS 2008).

Southern elephant seals spend most of their time at sea foraging in association with frontal systems, currents and shifting marginal ice-edge zones. Studies of foraging sites suggest that they are sensitive to fine-scale variation in bathymetry, sea-ice concentration and sea temperature profiles (Bailleul et al. 2007, Biuw et al. 2010). Southern elephant seals are prodigious divers, with dive depth and duration varying, but mostly ranging from 200 to 700 m deep and from 20 to just over 30 minutes in duration (Biuw et al. 2010, McIntyre et al. 2010).

Elephant seals from Península Valdés (Argentina), have different energy requirements according to age and sex, and this affects their foraging patterns as revealed by satellite telemetry studies (Campagna et al. 2021). Subadult and adult males forage along the Slope Front of the Argentine Shelf (Campagna et al. 2021), likely preying on the large biomass of Argentine shortfin squid (Illex argentines) that occurs there (Alemany et al. 2014, Brunetti et al. 1999, Lewis et al. 2006, Rodhouse et al. 1992).  Satellite tagged males showed the highest proportion of area-restricted search locations, suggesting more spatially concentrated feeding activity, and likely reflecting a preference for specific foraging habitat and prey (Campagna et al. 2020).

By contrast, female elephant seals use the Patagonian continental slope and in the Argentine Basin (Campagna et al. 1995, McGovern et al. 2019, Campagna et al. 2021, Aubone et al. 2021).

The IMMA also encompasses some of the offshore foraging areas of South American sea lions (Otaria byronia) that have rookeries and haulout sites on the mainland and islands off the Argentinian coast. While core foraging habitat is further inshore centring around the Río de la Plata estuary and its plume (Rodríguez et al., 2013), satellite-tracking data show that animals also move further offshore into the slope area (Riet-Sapriza et al., 2013), where they likely feed on striped weakfish (Cynoscion guatucupa) and the whitemouth croaker (Micropogonias furnieri). These species are also targeted by both the artisanal fisheries and the coastal bottom trawl fisheries operating in the area, and interactions between fisheries and sea lions have been reported (Szteren & Paez, 2002; Franco-Trecu et al., 2019).

Based on foraging behaviour and satellite-tracking data from individuals tagged in Lobos’ Island  breeding colony (35°01’S; 54°52’W), lactating South American sea lions are benthic divers and forage in shallow waters on the continental shelf (Riet-Sapriza et al., 2013). Most of the tracked dives (70%) were to depths of between 15 and 25 m, followed by the depth range of 5 – 10 m (23%), and a few dives (7%) between the 30 and 55 m depth (Riet-Sapriza et al., 2013). The maximum distances travelled on foraging trips from Lobos’ Island ranged between 37.8 and 135.5 km, extending into the slope front of this IMMA.

Sub-criterion C3: Migration Routes

Southern Elephant Seals undergo an annual double migration between foraging grounds and isolated haulout sites, where they are born and where they breed in the austral spring, moult in the austral summer, and haulout in the winters that they are still immature (Carrick et al. 1962b, Hindell and Burton 1988). Their foraging grounds may be located over 5,000 km from their terrestrial haulout sites (Jonker and Bester 1998, Campagna et al. 1999, Bailleul et al. 2007).

Because subadult and adult males forage along the slope front and females use the Patagonian continental slope and in the Argentine Basin (Campagna et al. 1995, 1998, McGovern et al. 2019, Campagna et al. 2021, Aubone et al. 2021), both sexes use the slope front of the Argentine Platform as a migratory corridor between their feeding and breeding areas.

The Southwest Atlantic hosts one of the largest southern right whale populations. The main breeding/calving grounds for this population are found near the northern Patagonian Gulfs along the central coast of Argentina. (Payne 1986, Rowntree et al. 2001, Crespo et al. 2015, Arias et al. 2018). Individuals of this population move across the continental shelf and this IMMA as they migrate from coastal breeding areas to the feeding sites, some of which (e.g., the outer continental shelf off Patagonia) (Zerbini et al., 2018) are also encompassed by this IMMA, and others which are further south in sub-Antarctic waters (Iñíguez et al., 2010b).

Sei whales typically migrate long distances from high latitude summer feeding areas to wintering areas in low latitudes, although sei whales are generally more restricted to temperate latitudes than other migratory baleen whale species (Rice, 1998). Historical and current information on the distribution and abundance of sei whales in the Southwest Atlantic is scarce. The use of Brazilian waters as a winter calving area from May to October has been confirmed (Weir et al., 2020; Wedekin et al., 2018; Heissler et al., 2016), while discovery tags and more recent satellite tagging studies provide evidence that the species migrates between Brazil and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) (Weir et al., 2020).

Criterion D: Special Attributes

Sub-criterion D2: Diversity

In the Argentine Sea shelf break, at the Argentina and Malvinas Confluence, the most frequently encountered marine mammals during December 2006 to March 2007 surveys are South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), sei whales and long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) (Mandiola et al. 2015, Hevia et al. 2022).

Marine mammal observations recorded during seismic surveys in the area, between 2000 and 2020 indicate that killer whales (Orcinus orca) are also regularly sighted in the proposed area (Hevia et al. 2022).

South American fur seals are found in waters over the continental shelf and slope. Males are more oceanic and follow fishing vessels over distances as long as 100 nautical miles (Crespo 2021). They can travel more than 320 km from the coast (Campagna et al. 2001, Crespo et al. 2007, Hückstädt et al. 2014, Cárdenas-Alayza et al. 2016), as well as along the coast (Giardino et al. 2016, Sepúlveda et al. 2015), suggesting that they have an important role in the gene flow between colonies (Feijoo et al. 2011, de Albernaz et al. 2017).

Killer whales are found throughout the proposed area (Coscarella et al. 2019a). Sightings of the species have increased during the last two decades (Crespo and García, 2016). Some individuals migrate over the shelf break from Antarctica, where the species is abundant (Durban and Pitman, 2012). According to stable isotope analysis, three groups are distinguished: resident animals in Patagonian waters; animals migrating from southern Brazil; and animals migrating from Antarctica (Loizaga et al. 2018). There are no abundance estimates for the species in the Argentine Sea but it is considered a moderately frequent species.

Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) are found throughout the Argentina Basin (Jefferson et al. 2014), where they may be common. In Argentina, strandings have been recorded in Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego and several sightings, mainly in the Patagonian sector. It is a widely distributed species that inhabits deep oceanic zones and slope waters, from the tropics to temperate zones (Ridgway and Harrison 1999; Bastida and Rodríguez 2003).

Long-finned pilot whales are usually found both in deep waters and within the continental shelf. In the Argentine Sea, they are generally sighted in groups of 25 to 50 individuals. They are frequently recorded in coastal areas of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and South Georgia (Bastida and Rodriguez, 2003). Numerous groups of around 80 individuals (42° S and 52° W) and 100 individuals (38° S and 55° W) have recently been sighted within the IMMA (unpublished data Sironi et al. 2023).

Supporting Information

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