NOAA's national marine sanctuary offices and visitor centers are currently closed to the public, and in accordance with Executive Order 13991 - Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask Wearing, all individuals in NOAA-managed areas are required to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on mask-wearing and maintaining social distances. Sanctuary waters remain open for responsible use in accordance with CDC guidance, U.S. Coast Guard requirements, and local regulations. More information on the response from NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries can be found on

Beyond Borders – The Sister Sanctuary Program

The sanctuary’s mission is to protect humpback whales while feeding and nursing within sanctuary waters. To help protect them when they leave the sanctuary, SBNMS has established a sister sanctuary program as part of an international global vision of Marine Mammal Protected Areas worldwide.

For the first time, international marine sanctuaries are joining together to protect a migratory marine mammal species on both ends of its range — the endangered humpback whale. The goal of the sister sanctuary program is to build a model for international cooperation to protect the endangered humpback whale along its migratory pathway in the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Humpback breaching
Breaching Humpback Whale

Humpback Whales – A Shared Resource
Humpback whales are long-distance migrants but highly faithful to specific feeding and breeding areas. Long–term research shows that individuals spend the summer and fall in the rich feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS), and then in late fall migrate some 1,500 miles south to the warmer waters of the Caribbean to mate and give birth to their young.

SBNMS (within the Gulf of Maine) represents one of the world’s most famous whale study areas, with a humpback whale research history that spans more than 30 years. In certain maternal lines, four generations of whales have been documented.
Learn more about whale migration...
Learn more about whale identification...

Map of Migration Paths
Map of North American Migration Paths

International Protection for Transboundary Marine Mammal Species – Coordination and Framework
The United Nations’ Environmental Programme (UNEP) has cited a sister sanctuary agreement as an important mechanism to maintain connections between marine protected areas and to protect migratory, endangered marine species that cross international boundaries. To assist participating governments in their efforts to develop and improve marine mammal conservation policies, UNEP’s Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) adopted (in 2008) a comprehensive Action Plan for the Conservation of Marine Mammals (MMAP) in the Wider Caribbean Region, which includes specific priority action items supporting the formation of sister sanctuaries.

Working in conjunction with CEP’s Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol, the sister sanctuary program increases public awareness and support for marine mammal conservation through joint research, monitoring, education and capacity building programs designed to enhance coordination among marine sanctuaries and help improve endangered humpback whale recovery in the North Atlantic. Learn more...

Dominican Republic Delegation
Dominican Republic Delegation Visits SBNMS

Wider Carribean Region
The Wider Caribbean Region (WCR) includes some 28 countries and territories, each with sovereign rights, separate conservation issues and priorities based on socioeconomic problems. For transboundary species such as the endangered humpback whale, sister sanctuaries can serve as stepping–stones for protection throughout an ocean basin. Learn more...

Sister Sanctuary Partnerships
The sister sanctuary initiative seeks to improve knowledge of the shared humpback whale population between SBNMS (feeding/nursery ground), their breeding and calving grounds as well as their migratory corridors. To date, Stellwagen sanctuary has sister sanctuary agreements with the Dominican Republic, the French Antilles and Bermuda. The intent of the agreement(s) is to foster cooperation on activities of mutual interest and exchange experience through coordination of capacity building, research and education concerning the conservation, stewardship and management of the endangered humpback whale, the respective marine bank ecosystems they frequent.

Dominican Republic
In December 2006, the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources established the world’s first sister sanctuary agreement, between NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) and the Santuario de Mamiferos Marinos de la Republica Dominicana (SMMRD). The two marine sanctuaries provide critical support for the same population of around 1,000 endangered humpback whales. Learn more...

Bermuda is strategically situated between humpbacks' northern feeding grounds and their southern calving and breeding grounds. In June 2011, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) and the Bermuda Department of Environmental Protection signed a Letter of Intent to cooperate on scientific and educational programs to better protect the North Atlantic population of endangered humpback whales, and to pursue collaborative management efforts leading to establishment of a sister sanctuary partnership. In September 2012, the formal Memorandum of Agreement was signed upon the creation of a new Bermuda Marine Mammal Sanctuary that encompasses the territorial waters of that island nation. Learn more about the LOI here. Learn more about the Sister Sanctuary agreement here. Read the MOA here.

French Antilles
In September 2011, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and France’s Marine Protected Areas Agency signed a sister sanctuary agreement to protect endangered humpback whales that migrate annually between NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Agoa Marine Mammal Sanctuary in the French Antilles (Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Martin and St Barthelemy) at the Caribbean’s eastern edge. Learn more...

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is working to establish similar arrangements with other Caribbean nations where humpback whales spend their winters.


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