Marine Mammal Conference Sounds Alarm, Highlights Positive Actions

I n early December 2019, more than 2,700 marine mammal scientists, policymakers, students, and activists, as well as journalists and others interested in the latest marine mammal science developments, gathered from 95 countries in Barcelona, Spain, to attend a joint meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy and the European Cetacean Society. 

At the conference, AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose participated in a workshop on captive marine mammal welfare, presented a poster on chronic stress in captive orcas, and served as a judge of scientific posters and talks. AWI’s Kate O’Connell participated in a workshop on improving collection of data on fishing gear entanglement, co-presented a poster on bycatch and the foreign import provisions of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, and gave a talk on vaquita conservation efforts.

A sobering message from plenary speaker Dr. Kit Kovacs of the Norwegian Polar Institute opened the conference. She noted that a third of marine mammal species across the globe are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and that many species are facing multiple stressors, such as habitat loss due to climate change, hunting, pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear. 

Bycatch in fishing gear was the focus of numerous conference sessions. More than 650,000 marine mammals die annually because of entanglement, making it the leading cause of human-induced mortality. Of the 13 populations of small cetaceans listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, 11 are facing extinction due to gillnet fishing gear, including the vaquita (whose population has dipped below 20) and the Māui dolphin (with an estimated population of 63).

Dr. Mervi Kunnasranta of the University of Eastern Finland spoke about innovative efforts to save the Saimaa ringed seal from the impacts of climate change on its breeding habitat. Her plenary talk was inspiring and won an audience appreciation award for showing that sound science can inform successful conservation actions even when the challenges facing the animals are considerable.

In addition to the nearly 2,000 poster sessions and talks, the conference offered a number of workshops, where experts led in-depth discussions on a wide range of subjects. The workshops helped introduce a new generation of students to the field. They also allowed differing points of view—for example, on the welfare of marine mammals in captivity—to be expressed constructively. 

Novel technological approaches to studying animals who live much of their lives at sea also featured prominently. Dozens of talks and posters described the use of drones as a helpful tool for counting animals, photo-identifying individuals, and even collecting breath samples—which can provide information on, among other things, genetics, stress, and pregnancy status. High resolution satellite imagery is also being used to detect large whales from space, identify species, count pinnepeds who are out of the water, and track migration patterns. 

Attendees were given the opportunity to sign the Barcelona Declaration, in which they promised to “inspire and motivate the public to protect marine mammals and the environments they inhabit” and to engage with policymakers to provide the best available science to help ensure successful conservation efforts. Despite the mounting pressures facing marine mammals, the passion and dedication of the conference’s participants provide hope that solutions to these threats will be found. 

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