Theme: Marine Mammal Conservation - Science making a difference

Tracy Brown SSNZ, Dr Barbara Maas NABU, and Grant Meikle SSNZTracy Brown SSNZ, Dr Barbara Maas NABU,
and Grant Meikle SSNZ
With over 1000 members from more than 20 countries, the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) is the largest international association of marine mammal scientists in the world. SMM is a non-profit organisation incorporated in 1982, providing a vehicle to promote the science of marine mammalogy, to improve the quality of scientific work, to encourage information exchange between members, and to provide a voice in social decision making from the leadership of marine mammalogy.

Sea Shepherd was invited to attend the 20th Biennial Conference in Dunedin, New Zealand (9th – 13th December 2013) as an exhibitor alongside others such as the BBC Natural History Unit, Cetacean Research Technology, New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust (an endemic and endangered resident of New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula), and many satellite and acoustic tracking companies. There were 21 exhibitors in all, mostly information based tables with Sea Shepherd one of the few selling merchandise to many environmentally conscious people.

The conference had a marine mammal conservation theme and attracted over 1100 attendees. There was a strong focus to lessen the environmental footprint of the conference, vegetarian catering options were available with the absence of seafood from the menu as the New Zealand sea lions, the Maui’s and Hector’s Dolphin are directly at risk from the squid trawling and set net fisheries. Attendants were asked to offset their overseas travel emissions by supporting the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust initiative to donate money for the penguin coastal habitat re-forestation project.

Over the five days of the conference there were 357 oral presentations providing science-based solutions to global problems using localised examples. Each presentation was fifteen minutes in duration over a broad range of research to discuss the issues faced by marine mammals and the many conservation challenges within coastal and oceanic environments. Research of whales, dolphins, dugongs, seals sea lions and otters covered issues such as changing foraging habits, breeding, social structures, genetic structures, anthropological impacts, satellite tagging and acoustic tracking, entanglement, illegal harvesting, Marine Protected Areas and science-based management.

There were two panel discussions whereby questions submitted by conference participants were examined by a panel of experts. The first discussion topic was the humane killing of marine mammals focussing on the scientific perspectives of complex technical, ethical and cultural considerations. Questions queried the definition of ‘humane killing’, the motivations for killing given widespread societal trends against invasive and lethal research, and veterinary viewpoints that unless a cetacean is on a hard surface (i.e. a beach) it is virtually impossible to kill ‘humanely’ due to shot placement. Further discussions as to whether data collated from ‘humane’ killings should be considered unethical by scientists, and the effects of traumatising events have on remaining familial members. References were made to past SMM conference statements signed by 250 scientists condemning dolphin drive hunts and some participants viewed the need for SMM to advocate further on this issue.

The second panel discussion was on the scientific studies of captive and free-living killer whales. Questions queried why breeding programs for females begin earlier than naturally in the wild, mother and calf separation, comparative survivorship rates, susceptibility to disease in captivity, protocols to analyse stress levels and mitigate mental health problems. Research ideas included whether free-ranging killer whale researchers should better inform those involved with the captivity industry to improve conditions, and the need for research to analyse and reduce oceanic noise in free-ranging marine wildlife habitats. Discussions arose regarding killer whales in captivity - Lolita, Tilikum and the movie ‘Blackfish’. Attempts were made by Judy St Leger of SeaWorld to justify marine mammals in captivity and Naomi Rose from the Animal Welfare Institute of USA encouraged all scientists to attend a Sea World ‘entertainment show’ to witness the torment that marine mammals endure with small enclosures, high volumes of noise, lights, and fireworks.

The conference inspired many conversations and Sea Shepherd was enthusiastically received. Discussions of overfishing, the wastefulness of by-catch, habitat destruction, and the lack of political will to act upon the recommendations of many years of scientific research was frustrating for many scientists although the enthusiasm and passion for the preservation of oceanic life was inspiring. Sea Shepherd has been invited to attend the next Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in San Francisco, 2015 and we are looking forward to another successful experience with like-minded marine conservationists.

By Tracy Brown
Coordinator Sea Shepherd New Zealand

20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals

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