Blogging from Biennial: Monica's Final Thoughts

Monica & Aleria
Monica & Aleria

We’ve been back from Biennial for about a week now, but I feel like I’m still processing everything I learned.  Most of my 40 pages of notes are yet to be transcribed, and at this point I am hoping I can still understand all of my shorthand scribbles. According to my records I listened to 118 presentations (some 15 minutes long and some 4 minutes long), and believe me, my jaw dropped when I realized it was that many. That’s in addition to the dozens of posters I viewed. Experienced biennial-goers warned me ahead of time “you have to pace yourself and take breaks” but I guess I didn’t follow instructions too well…I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity I had to learn from others in the field! With concurrent sessions, it was sometimes difficult to decide which session to attend.

By attending this conference I was able to reconnect with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a while, meet some colleagues who I’ve only previously talked to via email, and make new connections altogether.  As the week went on, it became much more difficult to have all the conversations I wanted to during the brief coffee breaks between sessions. Believe it or not, 7 days was not enough!

 Biennial abstracts by themeI returned from Biennial with a couple main takeaways. On the very first day, the conference organizers showed us a graph of presentations by theme. As WDC is a conservation organization, I was happy to see such a focus on conservation issues at a global conference, though it is an unfortunate reminder of how many species and populations are actually at risk. As the days went on, the underlying theme was the same: humans are negatively impacting the oceans, and entanglements in fishing gear and vessel traffic remain the most devastating threats to marine mammals. The specifics of the situation may change, whether it’s the types of vessels transiting different regions or fishing methods, but it seems there isn’t a single species that remains unscathed. It ranged from false killer whales being hooked on longline fishing efforts in Hawaii, to North Atlantic right whales getting caught in crab and lobster gear in Canada and New England, to Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River in Cambodia getting trapped in illegally-set gillnets, just to name a few. 

One of the benefits of attending a conference of this scale is the opportunity to hear from others who are working on the same conservation issues and evaluate the effectiveness of various steps taken worldwide. Colleen and I are able to take what we’ve learned and implement it not only in the work each of us are doing, but also share it with the rest of our WDC colleagues and start conversations about how we might be able to further succeed in our international efforts to protect whales and dolphins.

Albert Einstein reimaginedTo that end, many presenters and plenary speakers at the conference stressed the importance of outreach and education to raise awareness of these issues, and ultimately be successful in mitigating them.  However, if you look back at the graph pictured above, you’ll notice that outreach and education was only a small fraction of the overall conference. I am proud to say that I was there representing that small fraction by presenting on our outreach program Sharing the Seas, and am continually proud of WDC’s outreach efforts. One of my fellow education presenters at the conference, Wiebke Finkler, gave pointers on how to effectively communicate science by making it fun. She made reference to this image of Albert Einstein, and taking what the general public might consider dull (straightforward science, equivalent to an actual depiction of Einstein) and making it fun and captivating. Needless to say when she showed this picture, the whole room was in hysterics. It was effective!

Historically, the Biennial has been a science-focused conference, but maybe the tide is changing.  I am glad to see an increasing emphasis on the importance of education, and hope that the hundreds of scientists in attendance at the Biennial will work with their local educators to gain the support of their communities.Of course, my thanks goes out to those of you reading this and all of our supporters for being invested in our work. -Monica

I’d also like to acknowledge The Jessica Rekos Foundation for making my trip to the Biennial Conference possible, along with their support for all of our education initiatives. 

Colleen has some final thoughts to share too!