Tag Archives: Helene Marsh

A Final Presidential Blog from Helene Marsh

In a few hours (depending on the time zone), I pass the baton of President of the Society to the very capable hands of Nick Gales. I am sure his experience at the International Court of Justice has given him the gravitas required for the role!

It has (mostly) been a very interesting and rewarding experience to be Present of your Society and I feel very honored to have had the opportunity to serve in that capacity. I would like to thank all my fellow Board members for their support. I could not have done the job without their friendship and professionalism. Particular thanks to:

  • Nick Lunn and Ailsa Hall who are also leaving the Board after very long and faithful stints;
  • Jim Harvey and Heather Koopman who have bravely agreed to soldier on in their invaluable roles of Treasurer and Secretary (how could the Society manage without you);
  • Simon Goldsworthy and Coralie D’Lima who also rotate off the Board after giving stellar service as Member-at –Large and Student-Member-at Large respectively leaving Simon Northbridge and  Carolina Loch Silva and their newly elected colleagues to carry on their good work ;
  • Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson for such a great conference in Dunedin and leaving the Society in such excellent financial shape;
  • Alana Phillips and Shane Gero for their hard work as chairs of the Membership and Education Committees respectively and their attempts at educating me about social media (I still haven’t got a Facebook account though);
  • Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara for his attempts to make the Society more international;
  • Daryl Boness for his outstanding stewardship of our journal;
  • Charles Littnan for his leadership in all things ethical, especially his hard work on developing the Code of Conduct and for organizing the Humane Killing Panel in Dunedin;
  • Doug Wartzok for his efficient administration of the grants-in-aid and for moderating the Killer Whale Panel in Dunedin at such short notice – a tough gig;
  • Barb Taylor for facilitating the production of a record number of Presidential Letters, some of which actually appear to have made some difference;
  • Bill Perrin for his taxonomic wisdom and deep insights into the history of the Society.

A special thanks to Shane for taking over the awards in Dunedin when Nick Lunn could not come at the last minute.

When I stood for President, I aimed to make the Society more international. How are we doing on that front?  Membership Secretary, Alana Phillips, has come up with some interesting stats.

  • Members from the USA comprise approximately 50% of membership.  It will be important to stage at least every second Biennial in the US to serve that constituency.
  • Presumably as a result of the Dunedin Biennial, the Society had more members in Australia and New Zealand in 2013 than ever before. For the first time, there are more Australian members than Canadian, although that situation will presumably revert when the 2015 Biennial is held in San Francisco.
  • Membership is increasing from Central and South America; Brazil and Mexico have the 6th and 8th most members respectively and we can expect membership from that part of the world to be boosted by the 2017 Biennial in Mexico.
  • Although Monaco has the distinction of having the highest per-capita membership of any country, membership from Europe is not as high I would like, presumably because of competition with the European Cetacean Society. I hope that European membership might be boosted by a joint meeting with that Society in 2021. Negotiations to that end have commenced…
  • Membership from Asia is still low apart from Japan (5th) – perhaps we need to be thinking about an Asian Biennial in 2025!

However, I am less sanguine about the geography of marine mammal research effort. Between 2008 and 2012, only 12 % of papers in marine mammal were about taxa in low income countries, even though the coastal and riverine populations of marine mammals in such countries are disproportionately at risk. Bob Brownell recently pointed out that 9 of the 12 taxa of  small cetaceans listed on the IUCN Red List as “Critically Endangered” are from low income countries. The conservation of these populations needs to be informed by science. I recently attended a workshop on one of these species the Mekong River dolphin in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Although the survival of this dolphin population is far from certain, its prospects have improved as a result of assistance from a team of international experts. This team is hoping to be able to provide similar expertise to assist in the conservation of the Ayeyarwady dolphin, a liaison that has been facilitated by a Presidential letter  – demonstrating that our science can make a difference.

I wish the new Board all the best and look forward to seeing you all in San Francisco in 2015.

Warm regards,


Helene Marsh

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)

The shocking reality of the risks to Asian River dolphins

In a few weeks we will be gathered in Dunedin for our 20th Biennial Conference. This year’s theme is “Marine Mammal Conservation: Science Making a Difference“.

Despite the triple challenges of the Global Financial Crisis, the devastating Christchurch Earthquake and the recent shut-down of the US public sector, the conference organizers have done an amazing job. The conference program includes 357 talks and more than 400 posters. We are expecting between 1000 and 1200 people to attend from more than 30 countries!

My recent visit to Myanmar (formerly Burma) highlighted the importance of the conference theme and the urgent need for the Society to make a difference to marine mammal conservation.

The Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar supports a Critically Endangered population of Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) and a unique practice of cooperative fishing by dolphins and local cast-net fishermen. The Ayeyarwady River dolphin population is fragmented into three sub-populations by two defiles (rocky river regions with fast flowing water) further increasing its vulnerability to a range of impacts including continuing threats from gillnet entanglement, electric fishing, habitat degradation and acoustical disturbance caused by gold mining operations plus the threat of extensive dam building in the upper reaches of the river.

As President of the Society, I wrote to Myanmar policy makers in October 2012, concerning an article in the Myanmar Times that described a rapid increase in the use of electricity for catching fish in the Ayeyarwady River, despite the efforts of the Government of Myanmar to protect Irrawaddy dolphins and the human-dolphin cooperative fishery. In December 2005 the Department of Fisheries established the Ayeyarwady River Dolphin Protected Area in a 74-km segment of the Ayeyarwady River.

My letter offered technical assistance from the Society, perhaps along the lines of technical advice and support to the Cambodian Government and World Wildlife Fund – Cambodia who are addressing similar conservation challenges with the same species of dolphins. Society members have formed an ad hoc Mekong Dolphin Working Group that includes experts from the United Kingdom, United States, China, Japan, Spain, and Canada.

In November 2012, the then Director of Fisheries, invited me to Myanmar for further discussions on Ayeyarwady dolphin research and conservation. Unfortunately, I was unable to go at that time. I recently made a private visit to Myanmar facilitated by local NGOs. I visited the dolphin habitat in the Ayeyarwady River, talked with fishermen, local NGOs and Fisheries Division staff together with Myanmar dolphin expert Aung Myo Chit (who will be in Dunedin).

We learned that the illegal use of electricity to catch fish is increasing. Chinese-manufactured equipment for electro-fishing now supplements home-manufactured gear. Electric fishing is reportedly now practiced by fishers from most villages adjacent to the Ayeyarwady Dolphin Protected Area.

The electro-fishers are largely non-traditional fishers who have obtained sub-contracts to fish from the fisheries concession holders by using bullying tactics such a threatening to poison the fish inside village fish-fences using agricultural chemicals. The fishers have adapted the electro-technology to several fishing technologies including drift gill nets, cast nets and beach seines. They also exploit the mutualistic relationship between traditional fishers and dolphins by using the technique in association with some of the techniques practiced by the co-operative fishers such as banging on the water to attract the dolphins.

There are reportedly more than 10 gangs of illegal electro-fishers (80 – 100 boats) who range widely along the Dolphin Protected Area, without respecting any rules including the concession areas. The activities of the electro-fishers are acknowledged by local staff of the Fisheries Division and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Attempts by Fisheries Division staff to enforce the law against electro-fishing have been unsuccessful.

I have written to the Minister in a private capacity expressing my concerns about this situation. I promised to write to him separately as President of the Society for Marine Mammalogy reiterating the Society’s offer of technical support and suggesting technical areas in which such support might be useful. I shall be seeking the advice of the Conservation Committee on the wording of this letter.

The extirpation of the baiji in the early years of this century is a stark reminder of reality of the vulnerability of small isolated river dolphin populations. The Ayeyarwady River dolphin population is but one of several populations of river dolphins and porpoises in Asia that are listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN. The widespread practice of electro-fishing is only of many threats to these populations. I believe that as experts in marine mammalogy, we need to use our technical expertise to help save the other populations from the same fate. We also need to collaborate with experts in solutions to the root causes of these problems: poverty and limited enforcement capacity.

I look forward to talking to you further about these important matters in Dunedin.


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