Protection of the marine environment: results of the SAMM campaign


As part of the implementation of the Programme d'Acquisition de Connaissance sur les Oiseaux et les Mammifères Marins (PACOMM, 2010-2014), aerial overflight campaigns of the marine megafauna (SAMM) were carried out during the winter 2011/2012 and summer 2012.
This study was piloted by the Pelagis Observatory and the CEBC-CNRS. The final report of the study presents the scientific analyses that produced density and abundance estimates for birds and marine mammals, as well as the modelling of their distribution and preferred habitats on a seasonal basis. It also discusses the assessment of the role of marine protected areas in the conservation of these species.

As part of the European commitments relating to the Natura 2000 network at sea and its extension offshore, the Ministry in charge of Ecology has delegated to the Marine Protected Areas Agency, a public establishment dedicated to the protection of the marine environment, the implementation of a programme to acquire knowledge on birds, marine mammals and, more broadly, the entire pelagic megafauna.
Among the actions of the PACOMM programme, an ambitious aerial observation campaign was carried out by the PELAGIS Observatory (UMS 3462 University of La Rochelle / CNRS): the Aerial Monitoring of Marine Megafauna (SAMM) over two seasons, in winter 2011/12 and summer 2012. The results of these campaigns, delivered today, provide a better understanding of the current status of populations and their habitats in metropolitan waters and adjacent areas. They will also be used for the management of French marine protected areas and the designation of Natura 2000 sites offshore.

Objectives of the SAMM campaigns 

▪ Produce an inventory of the spatial distribution of marine birds and mammals, sea turtles, rays, sharks and large fish in metropolitan waters.
▪ Estimate abundance and identify preferred habitats for cetaceans and seabirds according to the seasons.
▪ Gather information on human activities at sea (fishing, maritime traffic, waste) in order to provide elements for assessing areas of interaction with anthropogenic activities.

Sampling strategy 

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▪ 559,000 km² divided into 3 sectors: Channel, Atlantic and Mediterranean
▪ A stratification according to the main bathymetric categories: continental shelf, slope and oceanic domain to describe the global distribution of animals and a coastal stratum to establish an initial status of existing Natura 2000 sites contained mainly within territorial waters (12 nautical miles)
▪ Two seasons sampled, in winter 2011-2012 and summer 2012 including 2 passages over the area.

Sampling design (excluding coastal stratum)

Methodology of observation :
▪ 3 aircraft and their crews (5 pilots and 15 observers) based in Morlaix (29), Rochefort (17) and Marignane (13) to cover the three sea facades
▪ Flying over the transects of the sampling plan at an altitude of 600 feet (180 m) and a speed of 90 knots (170 km/h), or about 600 hours of flight time in observation effort.
▪ 2 observers record observations with the naked eye through a bubble window (which allows observation from above the aircraft); the navigator-secretary enters the data and ensures the flight plan progresses.

Analysis and results

The effort made (100,000 km flown) and the data set obtained are 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.

Scientific analyses conducted by the PELAGIS observatory have made it possible to produce density and abundance estimates for birds and marine mammals, as well as to model their distribution (geostatistical analysis) and their preferred habitats (habitat models) as a function of the season.

These results show that marine species are highly mobile and can occupy very different areas from season to season. Between winter and summer, they also show varied ecological preferences (temperature, chlorophyll, depth, etc.). SAMM campaigns profoundly change the image we have of the distribution of marine animals. Most species are actually further offshore than previous knowledge would have led us to believe.

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, we discovered the presence of the harbour porpoise along the coasts of the Bay of Biscay in winter as far as the Basque country. 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.

Abundance estimates confirm the need for an effective protection of these two species: it is estimated that there are 25,000 individuals of bottlenose dolphin in winter for the whole French metropolitan waters and about 45,000 individuals of harbour porpoise in summer. As a comparison, the common and blue and white dolphins are estimated at nearly 700,000 individuals in summer in the Bay of Biscay.

The seabirds also had a few surprises in store for them. For example, the presence of the pygmy gull was known in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the observations of the SAMM campaign showed that this species was abundant in winter, with an essentially oceanic distribution. The abundance estimate thus suggests the presence of 40,000 individuals during this season.
Overall, the SAMM programme has revealed the major seasonal distribution patterns, in winter and summer, for some twenty groups of cetacean and seabird species in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, as well as turtles and sharks.

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Image: Fin whale, accompanied by two blue and white dolphins (Mediterranean Sea).


The lessons learned from the SAMM campaigns are invaluable for improving knowledge of cetaceans and seabirds and the implementation of an effective conservation policy in metropolitan France. These results are useful for managers of existing marine protected areas (MPAs) and will also be used to create new MPAs. In particular, they are being used for the designation of offshore Natura 2000 sites for birds and marine mammals, in line with European Commission requirements. They also help to identify the responsibility of existing Natura 2000 sites, mainly located in territorial waters, for species conservation. They make it possible to assess the coherence of the network of marine protected areas in mainland France.

The results in French waters are also important for other European countries: the species observed are mobile and their protection will require management measures on a European scale, including the construction of a coherent and well-managed European network of marine protected areas.
The PACOMM programme also opens up new perspectives in the framework of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), a European directive that requires monitoring of these groups of species as well as the pressures and impacts of human activities on ecosystems. In this context, aerial campaigns similar to SAMM could be set up every six years to monitor birds, turtles and marine mammals at sea and assess their ecological status.

This aerial campaign also provides a more global view of human activities, so 2,500 ships were observed, as well as 28,000 macro-wastes. For the first time, it was possible to sample all French waters of the three metropolitan sea fronts simultaneously by aerial observation and over two seasons.

Read the full report

About the Pelagis Observatory (UMS 3462), University of La Rochelle
The PELAGIS observatory is a joint service unit of the University of La Rochelle and the CNRS, in charge of monitoring mammal and seabird populations in waters under French jurisdiction. The unit created in January 2011 continues the observatory activities developed by the Centre d'Etudes des mammifères Marins in La Rochelle and the Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé on marine predators for more than 30 years. The PELAGIS Observatory aims to integrate the different marine predator monitoring programmes into a coherent set of databases constituting an information system on populations of marine mammals and birds. The service provided is twofold: to provide data sets for research into the ecology and conservation biology of the species concerned and to provide scientific and technical support for public conservation policies. The unit is the 'marine mammals' referent for the Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy.


About the Marine Protected Areas Agency
The Marine Protected Areas Agency is a national public establishment dedicated to the protection of the marine environment, under the supervision of the Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy.
Created in 2006, the Marine Protected Areas Agency's main missions are :
-Supporting public policies for the creation and management of marine protected areas throughout the French maritime domain,
- the animation of the network of marine protected areas,
-Technical and financial support for marine nature parks,
-strengthening France's potential in international negotiations on the sea.

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