Tag Archives: 2013

Reflections on the 20th Biennial Meeting

The Society held its much awaited biennial conference on the theme of ‘Conservation of Marine Mammals: Science Making a Difference’ on the Otago University campus in Dunedin last week. The conference was a great success despite the unprecedented impact of multiple key threatening  processes: the Global Financial Crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes, the US government shutdown and the propeller falling off the ferry bringing the recycled paper for the program booklets from the North Island of New Zealand.

Congratulations to Liz Slooten, Steve Dawson and their team for their fantastic job in organizing such a wonderful conference and their assistance in raising almost $US200,000 in sponsorship. Special thanks are also due to  Kim Rhodes from Experient who adapted  her professional skills to help shape and deliver a conference in a very different setting from those in which she normally operates.

Today’s graduate students are the future of the Society, and they are the ones who will stand of the shoulders of the giants who founded it.  The Society and especially the local Organising Committee raised nearly $90,000 for student travel grants and 132 students were supported to attend the conference. An estimated 300 students participated in the student workshop which featured chapter presentations, a thought-provoking keynote address from Mark Orams and group discussions with professionals in different fields.

For the first time, the conference program included two panel sessions to discuss current important and sensitive issues facing marine mammalogists. Conference attendees voted with their feet by their excellent attendance at these panels indicating the deep interest in our Society becoming an engaged society – one that wants our science to make a difference.

The Society’s Ethics Committee convened a panel to discussing the Humane Killing of Marine Mammals. The purpose of the panel was not to attempt a consensus on the killing of marine mammals, but to educate members regarding  current scientific perspectives on these complex technical, ethical and cultural issues.  Former New Zealand Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, moderated the panel, comprised of four member with expertise in marine mammal science or animal welfare issues.  The panel speakers were: Nick Gales (Australian Antarctic Division), Diana Reiss (Hunter College, CUNY), Paul Jepson (Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London) and James Kirkwood (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare).

The second panel discussed the Scientific Studies of Captive and Free-Living Killer Whales. The goals of this panel discussion were to: 1) provide an overview of scientific data collected from free-ranging and captive killer whales; and 2) offer an opportunity for experts to discuss comparative aspects of killer whale biology in these two environments and the implications thereof.  The Chair of the Society’s Committee of Scientific Advisors, Doug Wartzok, moderated the panel. Doug DeMaster (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, USA), a member of the panel, presented a short background paper comparing life history and other parameters between free-ranging and captive killer whales.  Other members of the panel were Robin Baird (Cascadia Research), David Duffus (University of Victoria, British Columbia), Mark Orams (Auckland University of Technology), Naomi Rose (Animal Welfare Institute, USA), and Judy St. Leger (Sea World Parks and Entertainment).

The topics discussed by both panels were submitted by members of the society prior to the meeting and posted on the conference wiki. The sessions were recorded and will be made available to members on the Society’s website.

As planned, the panel discussions generated controversy (and controversy inevitably generates rumor). I assure you that the Board was not offered and did not receive money to promote or cancel either panel. The travel costs of some panel members were externally sponsored. The Board has learned lessons from the Dunedin panel discussions and is developing protocols for panel discussions at future conferences in anticipation of lively discussions in San Francisco.

I am pleased that that the Society used our collective knowledge of conservation biology and animal welfare science to inform members about these sensitive issues.  I regard it as very important that the Society continues to advance the scientific aspects of such discussions and the Ethics Committee will be forming a Welfare Science Sub-Committee to advance the issues raised by the Humane Killing Panel.

The issues faced by marine mammals are serious and growing.  We learned a great deal in Dunedin about the conservation challenges to marine mammals. Much of it was not good news, especially for coastal and riverine species.  We must engage with other specialists to address the root causes of these problems which are largely the human issues of poverty, governance and political will.  We must also face tough ethical issues if our science is to make a difference.

I hope that some of you will feel inspired by the Dunedin meeting to serve your Society by standing for the Board or agreeing to serve on one of its committees or sub-committees. We look forward to receiving additional nominations for the elected officer position that are up for election in 2014. If you are interested in standing for election please contact Ailsa Hall (ajh7@st-andrews.ac.uk) and if you are interested in being a committee chair or member please contact the President-Elect Nick Gales (nick.gales@aad.gov.au) indicating how you can contribute.

I look forward to seeing you all in San Francisco in 2015.

Helene Marsh,

President (until June 30 2014)

Call for Applications – S. Innes Memorial Student Travel Bursary

On May 21, 2000, the world of marine mammal research lost two talented scientists and cherished colleagues, Stuart Innes and Malcolm Ramsay. Drs. Innes and Ramsay were conducting field research near Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada when their helicopter crashed. Both Stuart and Malcolm are remembered with affection and admiration for their boundless energy and devotion to their scientific endeavours in the Arctic.

Stuart was a vocal advocate for supporting students in their efforts to develop a career in Arctic marine mammal research. He believed that the Biennial Marine Mammal Conferences hosted by the Society for Marine Mammalogy were a good opportunity for young researchers to learn, network, and develop enthusiasm from the leaders in the field. As a tribute to Stuart, friends and colleagues have established the S. Innes Memorial Student Travel Bursary to help support a student’s travel to this conference each time it is held.

The award is open to post-secondary students conducting marine mammal research in the Arctic. Applications should consist of the following: the student’s name, affiliated institution, name and address of supervisor plus one additional reference, level (MSc or PhD) and year of study, the abstract submitted for consideration of a presentation at the upcoming Biennial conference, a current CV, and a letter of no more than 400 words describing the project and how the student would benefit from the award.

A selection committee of Stuart’s colleagues will review the applications and select one winner. The committee’s decision is final. After the conference, a brief report should be submitted summarizing how the student benefited from the conference experience. The award this year is $1000.00 USD.

Questions and applications should be sent by email (preferred) or mail to Nick Lunn (contact details below). Applications must be received by midnight 30 August 2013.

Dr. Nick Lunn
Environment Canada
CW405 Biological Sciences Building
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9


Preparations Underway for the SMM Biennial in New Zealand

Preparations are well underway for the SMM biennial in New Zealand with a near record number of abstract submissions . All the abstracts have been reviewed and the results posted on the web. If you need letters of support to obtain an New Zealand visa or travel funds from your institution, I am in the process of organizing such letters to be downloadable from the website.

As marine mammal scientists, we are incredibly privileged to be allowed to observe and handle wild marine mammals in ways that are not open to members of the wider society. In 2009, the Society published Guidelines for Handling Marine Mammals (Gales et al. Marine Mammal Science 25:725-736). These guidelines represent the ethical standards of the international marine mammal scientific community and define the values that characterise the researchers that are the backbone of our Society. These guidelines are an invaluable resource for researchers and Animal Ethics Committees throughout the world.

Thanks to the hard work of Charles Littnan and his Ethics Committee, the Society has now gone one step further and produced a Code of Professional Ethics, which was accepted by the Society in the mid-year ballot this year and will be published in Marine Mammal Science in 2014. This Code states 13 guiding principles aimed at assisting the Society to fulfil its mission to promote the global advancement of marine mammal science and contribute to its relevance and impact in education, science, conservation and management. The code is comprehensive and covers professional conduct, human and animal ethics, information dissemination and authorship and the use of robust science in evidence based management. I commend it to you.

Two panels associated with the Biennial will provide the opportunity for members to learn about the science I hope will contribute to shaping views about two controversial, ethical matters:

  1. ‘Lethal Take of Marine Mammals’, which will be a feature of the plenary day, the first day of our meeting; and
  2. ‘Biology and Life History of Captive and Freed-Ranging Killer Whales’, which will be an evening ‘side event’.

The purpose of these panel discussions is NOT to reach a consensus or Society position but to educate members with regard to current scientific perspectives so that people can consider empirical data as they make up their own minds about these complex mixes of technical, ethical and cultural issues. There will be no outputs from the session or motions from the floor.

The workshops will have several structural features in common:

  1. an independent facilitator,
  2. introductory speaker(s) who will outline the relevant science, and
  3. an expert panel with the capacity to represent the diverse dimensions of the issue in their answers to questions provided by you, the members, in advance of the meeting.

Members of the Society will be invited to submit questions online one month prior to the meeting. The questions will be clearly visible to our membership for transparency’s sake. The working groups organising each session will select a set of the questions that encompass the aspects of the issue. The expert panel will then discuss the questions.

We are very fortunate to have two distinguished facilitators. Sir Geoffrey Palmer will facilitate the ‘Lethal Take’ workshop. Sir Geoffrey, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand was the New Zealand Commissioner to the IWC for several years, experience that makes him outstandingly well qualified for this role.

John Reynolds , a former Chair of the US Marine Mammal Commission and President of the Society from 2006-2008 will facilitate the ‘Captive Killer Whale Workshop’.

I hope that many of you will submit questions on-line and attend these workshops. Watch the SMM website or email smmethics@gmail.com.

There will clearly be much to talk about in Dunedin and I look forward to seeing you there. Remember, it is our very diversity on tough issues such as these that makes our Society so vital, effective and internationally relevant.

Helene Marsh

Update on Marine Mammal Science from the Editor-in-Chief

I have two important announcements to make about the Society’s journal, Marine Mammal Science.

First, it is that time of year when Thomson’s ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) releases its latest Journal Impact Factor (IF; note that IF always lags by a year so the latest is for 2012) scores based on its Journal Citation Report. The impact factor for a journal is calculated based on a three-year period, and can be considered to be the average number of times published papers are cited up to two years after publication.

The 2012 IF for Marine Mammal Science is 2.128. This compares with last year’s value of 1.611 and a previous high of 1.787 in 2007.

The journal also increased in rank among both Zoology and Marine and Freshwater Biology journals. It currently ranks 26 out of 149 among Zoology journals and 30 out of 100 among Marine and Freshwater Biology journals. Rankings from last year were 38 out of 146 and 41 out of 97, respectively.

The second announcement is that as of the first issue of 2014, Marine Mammal Science will only be published electronically. There will no longer be printed versions of the journal.

This change follows on the vote last year by Society members in support of such a change. The change to electronic publication only will not change the volume and issue structure of the journal. Each year will be a new volume and there will be four issues published in 2014.

We will examine whether the journal could sustain six issues per year/volume in the future. One outcome of this change is that the journal will increase the number of pages published per year. This will ultimately relieve the back log of papers waiting to be published.

Of course another outcome will be that the Society will be “greener” in publishing its journal by reducing the need for paper.

Daryl J. Boness
Marine Mammal Science

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New Presidential Commission to Save Vaquita Takes First Steps

The first meetings of the Comisión Asesora de la Presidencia de México para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (Advisory Commission of the Presidency of Mexico for the Recovery of the Vaquita) were held in Mexico City in February and March of this year, and significant actions are under way. Ing. Juan José Guerra Abud, Secretario de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, formed the 17-member Commission to expedite actions to save Mexico’s porpoise. The Secretary brought together the heads of government departments, the chairs of Congressional natural resource committees, representatives of the states of Sonora and Baja California, representatives of fishery unions, the Mexican Navy, non-governmental organizations and private foundations, and scientists to step up action on meeting what he describes as Mexico’s moral obligation to save the species.

At its first meeting, the Commission identified three actions for immediate implementation:

  1. publication of the NOM (official standard) that will make the use of small-type trawls instead of gillnets mandatory in the shrimp fishery;
  2. much more effective enforcement of existing regulations; and
  3. commitment of financial resources to compensate fishermen for lost income as a result of vaquita protection measures. The NOM was published for public comment on schedule in February, and this sets the stage for large-scale gear changes before next fall’s shrimp season. A small working group was established to develop the economic plan immediately.

Formation of the Commission was timely given recent indications that protection efforts to date have been insufficient to stop the vaquita population’s decline – there are now estimated to be fewer than 200 individuals. The International Recovery Team (CIRVA) noted at its last meeting (February 2012) that although Mexico has made real progress towards saving the species, the Vaquita Refuge has only slowed, and not stopped or reversed, the decline. Not only is the Refuge too small, but enforcement of a partial ban of gillnets has proven infeasible. The good news, however, is that a breakthrough has been made in the development of alternative fishing gear that should not kill vaquitas but will allow shrimp fishing to continue.

Phocoena sinusSmall trawls that can be pulled from the artisanal fishing boats (pangas) have been tested by Mexico’s fisheries agency. These trawls are equipped with turtle and fish excluder devices and use a ‘tickler’ chain to reduce bottom-fish bycatch. The trawls are effective for catching shrimp and are being tested for catching commercial finfish. Conversion will require training and gear replacement and it is anticipated that fishermen will need compensation to maintain their income. At the second meeting a proposal to further test the new gear involving more fishermen in August 2013 was adopted.

The Minister also decided on a new vaquita abundance estimation survey to be conducted as soon as possible. This survey will repeat the design of the survey in 2008 and could be conducted as early as fall 2013.

Progress will be closely monitored by numerous groups, some of which (e.g. IUCN, Society for Conservation Biology, and Society for Marine Mammalogy) have written letters to commend Mexico for actions taken and to plead for further quick and critical actions. Representatives of the CSG and SMM who are on the new Commission are optimistic that Mexico’s new Administration is serious and prepared to commit the necessary resources for timely and appropriate efforts to prevent the vaquita’s extinction. Stay tuned.

Barbara Taylor
Chair, Conservation Committee