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A Holistic Approach to Conservation and Protection

It was with huge pleasure that I was able to take up the invitation of ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas) to deliver the Keynote Speech to the 2016 Meeting of the Parties in Helsinki, Finland (29th August – 1st September).

The following is the text of the speech 

Good morning everybody,

I have been the Chief executive of WDC (previously WDCS), since 1999. With my colleagues I have, every day since then, lived and breathed the issues that affect these animals all over the world, and…as part of that commitment, we have always sought to support the aims and ambitions of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS).

I am, therefore, honoured to have the opportunity to say a few words here and would like to open by offering my thanks to the Secretariat and Advisory Group for the opportunity to address this Conference of the Parties. 

I would also like to thank the Finnish Government and particularly the Ministry of the Environment, for their hospitality. I am pleased to have the opportunity to see a little of Helsinki, a lovely city that I rarely get to visit, but in which I always feel welcome.

In responding to the offer to address you here today I determined not to simply to reiterate the agenda you have before you, though I shall reference some of the resolutions, but intend to address what I see as the opportunity now before ASCOBANS to address its objectives with renewed vigour and vision.

Please don’t read anything into the fact that I do not mention all the resolutions, I feel that they all have merit, but time is an issue.


Cumulative threats

I would like to start by talking about the cumulative threats cetaceans face. Indeed, ASCOBANS was formed to try and work collectively to address these cumulative threats.

Some years ago, back in September 1994 I had the privilege of attending the 1st Meeting of the Parties to ASCOBANS in Stockholm, Sweden.

The aspirations for that meeting were high. After years of seeking to affect policy through other conventions, the Parties had come together in an agreement under the Bonn Convention that sought to avoid the somewhat piecemeal approach to protecting cetaceans we had seen in trying to implement policy through other mechanisms.



In looking back at some of those early aspirations, I note that Sweden, in hosting that meeting hoped that, ‘it would be a starting point for positive conservation measures for small cetaceans’.

The UK, who then provided the interim secretariat noted that it was an “opportunity for enhancing co-ordination and implementation of the Agreement”.

As WDC, we expressed in those early days, our hopes that “the Parties would adopt a precautionary approach and not delay conservation actions whilst awaiting results of scientific studies.”  

If that sounds familiar, I hope that you would agree that this is a theme that WDC, and the non-government organisations (NGOs) that support ASCOBANS, have never shied away from championing.

I stress the optimism of that original meeting as over the last 22 years we have progressed in our knowledge of these remarkable creatures and we have a much better understanding of the anthropogenic threats that we are seeking to mitigate.

During this period we have come to understand the real impact of man-made pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and we have seen the recognition of the emergent impact of man-made climate change.

I would note that many of the nations here represented, were some of the first to recognize the threat of climate change and to have long since begun efforts to mitigate its effects.

However, in coming to understand these individual threats we have also come to see that we cannot treat any one threat in isolation – but have realized that a holistic approach to combatting this constant, cumulative assault on cetaceans is required.

ASCOBANS should be congratulated for having the imagination and foresight to engage with these problems; actively empowering governments, agencies, civil society, industry and all stakeholders to work together in solving our common challenges.

But as we progress, forgive me if I slip into using the word cetacean, or even whale now and again. I of course recognise the terms of reference of the Agreement, but many of the efforts that we undertake this week for the small cetaceans will have a welcome positive impact for their larger brethren.

In noting the agenda I would therefore stress that we remember the intention of the original signatories and not accidently allow for any lack of originality (or short-term political expediency) to see us become less than we could be, or indeed, need to be. 

Cumulative impacts

The reductionist approach to trying to deal with anthropogenic effects is increasingly recognized as a limited approach to achieving favourable conservation status for cetaceans and other species.

Of course, we prioritise and focus effort as necessary, and in times of economic austerity, we will be faced with increased challenges, but I would ask that we leave the decisions on prioritising funding to later, whilst in this forum we focus on the best possible solutions that we can recommend, because it’s not just what ASCOBANS can do, but what we can influence in the wider environment of cetacean conservation.

Indeed, the recognition that multiple, cumulative and often synergistic threats with possible effects over vast areas, has been a crucial and important step in our ability to ensure that the marine environment is able to sustain cetacean populations and eventually allow them to flourish … and in that ASCOBANS has always been acknowledged to be a leading proponent of achieving small cetacean populations at levels with the lowest anthropogenic influence – and – that its general aim remains to minimise and ultimately reduce to zero, anthropogenic removals.

And by ‘removals’, – and, forgive my simplicity of speech, – by removals, I mean ‘unable to engage with its population in a biologically significant way’, and not necessarily some actual physical removal from the sea.

Of course, such a latter definition would be ‘politically practical’ in times of limited resources, but scientifically we need to understand the actual impact of our decisions on cetaceans and populations resilience in all its forms.

It’s thus that I welcome the series of resolutions before us this week and urge your informed consideration of their impact for future conservation efforts.

I am especially encouraged by the Draft Resolution on ‘Managing Cumulative Anthropgenic Impacts in the Marine Environment’, as submitted by the Advisory Committee.

In seeking to empower industry, governments and civil society, indeed all stakeholders, to work together to improve conservation decisions in applying the precautionary principle to limit chronic cumulative and synergistic impacts on cetaceans, ASCOBANS is fulfilling its commitment of 22 years ago to shape a holistic approach to cetacean conservation that goes beyond ‘sticking plaster solutions’ – and seeks to create the scientific and policy environment where we can see cetacean populations once again thrive in healthy oceans.

But this is, of course, not a new idea and it’s not surprising that the current membership of ASCOBANS means that policy should, and does, resonate with European Union (EU) policy. In fact the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) calls for Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020.

This ecosystem approach is to be welcomed but, as always, the devil is in the detail of the implementation of good intentions. 

Under Descriptors 1 and 4 of the MSFD there are specific requirements with regard to that, “the distribution and abundance of species…” and that, “all elements of the marine food webs…occur at normal abundance and diversity and levels capable of ensuring the long-term abundance of the species and the retention of their full reproductive capacity”. 

Therefore, actions to achieve GES for other descriptors relating to noise and other forms of pollution, marine litter and fish stocks by ASCOBANS should also positively contribute to cetacean conservation whilst ensuring that EU Member States fulfil their legal commitments to the Union. 

That said, the European Commission has stated that, within the legal context of the EU, Member States have shown a ‘lack of ambition and coherence in the targets and measures defined’.

Civil society is watching carefully to see if a lack of ambition in Member States in implementing the Directive may be because of an over-reliance on existing legislation and management measures, and because, as always, but more so now – a lack of funding is compounding uncertainty about how conservation objectives will be reconciled with the needs of other marine sectors.

We all know that conservation suffers when economic growth suffers – what we sometimes forget is that a healthy environment often leads to healthy economies.

I would caution, with some concern that the known lack of current funding should not force pragmatism too early in the process of defining what is necessary to meet our goals. Our role here at ASCOBANS is not to ‘pragmatise’ the objectives of the Agreement, but to ensure we are making the right recommendations to fulfil the commitments of the signatory Parties.

And please don’t let me mislead you into thinking that the individual resolutions addressing individual threats are not to be welcomed and acted upon, it’s simply that we need to remember that each and every one of these threats are interrelated.

Thus the resolution on cumulative impacts is not only important but sets in context how we approach all other issues here before us.


Looking at some of the specific resolutions I welcome the draft resolution on Monitoring and Mitigation of Small Cetacean Bycatch

It honestly notes that bycatch remains a major cause of mortality for cetaceans in the Agreement Area and sets out a series of definitions and aims for the coming period including reiterating the ultimate aim of reducing bycatch to zero.

I would argue that this aspirational goal of zero must never be lost as we move forward as it helps keep us on track, but also, such aspirational goals have been shown to be critical for engaging multi-stakeholder groups, as evidenced within such approaches as that of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act Take Reduction Teams.

I would also take this opportunity to note that I remember when the concept of 1.7% was first discussed.

But if my memory serves me right, I don’t recall that it was ever a figure to be applied to all species of small cetaceans? I also recall that any such triggers should have been developed for specific management units and not just whole species.

Indeed it was meant to be an initial figure to be only applied to harbour porpoises in the Agreement area whilst better triggers were developed?

I may be being somewhat ignorant of the recent thinking on this matter, but the fact that we are still discussing the 1.7% figure nearly two decades later is somewhat discouraging.

However, what is worse is that in the Baltic Sea the harbour porpoise population has shrunk to approximately 500 individuals. 

Having watched how the International Whaling Commission has sought to deal with the issue of encouraging efforts to protect the Maui dolphin and the Vaquita it is with some trepidation that I mention these species here. In both the cases of the Vaquita and Maui dolphin, the nations concerned have been aware of the challenges that the species face, and in both cases we see populations continue to decrease.

It would be a shame if the Baltic Harbour Porpoise and the Parties to ASCOBANS should be talked of in the same breath as the Maui dolphin!

The resolution before us on bycatch calls on us to develop a shared language for measuring our efforts, whilst still keeping our ultimate goal of zero bycatch in our minds eye. Failure to do the latter would be seen by the public as an abdication of our responsibilities.

However, in welcoming the resolution we must state categorically that many of us have grave concerns the concept of ‘safe limits for bycatch’.

Why the concern?

Firstly, because with the cumulative impacts that we are discussing this week, we do not believe that there are safe identifiable levels of bycatch. The cumulative effects of the threats we are dealing with mean that we cannot hope to address one threat and believe that we have ‘solved that problem’.

Secondly, the approach is, I believe, in contradiction of the declared aims of the Agreement and could actively disengage participants in driving forward to seek sustainable solutions to achieve zero bycatch.

Thirdly, as I shall discuss in a little while, and as the emergent scientific evidence is leading us to understand, we can no longer just think of groups of cetaceans as homogenous blocks that make up species or populations, but need to start to consider the role of individuals as being critical to the conservation of sub-populations and populations as a whole. 

Unfortunately bycatch is not an individually selective removal mechanism – it does not remove the old and the redundant, but targets young and ‘important’ alike.

Fourthly, we do not believe the public will accept any ‘safe level of bycatch’.

Our increased understanding of the suffering encountered by cetaceans in bycatch is a huge welfare concern. And just because it is often out of sight, welfare is still an issue for the general public, scientists and fishermen alike.

And I would just like to say a few words about animal welfare.

Often the poor relative of conservation, our concern for the welfare of other living beings is one of the things that makes us human. It is not something to be ignored ‘in the round’ as we strive to improve the circumstances of animals, including cetaceans.

Other conventions are increasingly engaging with this – and this is well illustrated by the International Whaling Commission and its keystone work on whale entanglement – and there is at least a two-fold link to conservation…

Firstly, the prognosis of welfare concerns in wild animals may link to a poor prognosis for their survival, itself a conservation concern – for example, animals that are exhibiting disease may be being impacted by pollution, but the initial signal may be one linked to their welfare.

Secondly, I would argue that caring for the welfare of an animal is intrinsically linked to caring for its family; its population; its species!

That is two sides of the same coin.

Returning to the resolution, I do agree that triggers for increased action could allow us to help prioritise and direct more interventions, but these must be just that – triggers for more action, and not excuses for limiting action.

What may appear to be a pragmatic way to prioritise spending should not be an excuse for capping interventions.

Indeed, I would urge the Parties to think carefully about any model that seeks to simplify the prioritisation without considering the synergistic and cumulative impacts on cetaceans.

Rationalising management action on the basis of simple categories of ‘resilience’, ‘susceptibility’ to bycatch may be one way to approach the issue, but they cannot be relied upon to deliver an answer if the overarching guiding principle is simply how to deliver a political ‘perception’ of action.

Yes, adapting existing fisheries monitoring schemes can give us more information, and we may have to prioritise, but just because we live in “times of restricted budgets”, we should remember Edmund Burke, who said, Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense may be an essential part of true economy”. 


Which brings me to Pollution.

In 1994 when we were discussing the terms of reference of the first advisory committee, there was some discussion on whether ASCOBANS should consider pollution or leave that to other fora.

Sense prevailed and those early pioneers recognised that a holistic approach was crucial.

Despite this foresight, it’s with some dismay that we know from a growing body of work – including the recent excellent 2016 Scientific Reports paper by Jepson et al. on PCBs – that this issue has not gone away and, indeed, that we need once more to think about the impacts of PCBs on cetacean population resilience.

In a large pan-European analysis of stranded or biopsied cetaceans, three out of four species- striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and killer whales had mean PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal PCB toxicity thresholds.

The paper demonstrates that whilst we have seen historical concentrations of PCBs initially declining, following the mid-1980s EU and other bans, we have since seen stabilised concentrations in, for example, UK harbour porpoises.

The situation of some small or declining populations of bottlenosed dolphins and orcas in the NE Atlantic are associated with low recruitment, consistent with PCB-induced reproductive toxicity.

I think we all had hoped that chemical pollutants were a diminishing threat, but we now have to consider that such sustained and elevated PCB burdens are likely to have significant effects at the population level in some European species in the ASCOBANS area.

I would therefore strongly commend to you the draft resolution Doc. 6.2.3 ‘Impacts of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)’


I welcome the work of ASCOBANS and her sister Agreement the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea Mediterranean Sea and Contigous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS) in seeking to deal with the issue of noise.

The EU”s Marine Strategy Framework Directive is a good starting point for monitoring some aspects of underwater noise, but I would argue that we still need an agreed IMPACT INDICATOR to allow us to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

We welcome the work that Germany has been pioneering in this area and would urge ASCOBANS to build on this, noting that,

–       we need precautionary management and mitigation measures to reduce underwater noise pollution at source;

–       We need to identify exclusion zones for impulsive sound activities, including the designation of buffer-zones; and,

–       We need to ensure that all Parties engage in a precautionary and practical approach, setting targets within the Directive for demonstrating an improving trend in underwater noise pollution

–       We need to apply Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs)_ and environmental impact assessments (EIAs) to all plans and activities likely to generate significant underwater noise pollution  

And this week, we especially welcome the work of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) as detailed in Document 6.2.7a Draft Resolution “CMS Family Guidelines on Environmental Impact Assessments for MArine Noise-generating Activities.’ 


The Paradigm Shift

This brings me to my take home message, which is, “is our current paradigm for addressing these issues adequate for the challenges we face?”

So if you will indulge me, I would like to suggest a twin pillar approach to begin to think about an evolving way of considering how to tackle conservation policy.

We need to consider,

1. That the positive roles cetaceans play in our shared ecosystems is maybe greater that we ever thought, and,

2. That the emergent scientific knowledge of what is happening in terms of social complexity and cultural transmission factors may be critical in forming future conservation policy.

Firstly what I call the ‘Ecological Whale’ 

Healthy oceans mean a healthy planet. And a healthy planet is good for cetaceans and humans alike.

That cetaceans play a crucial role in our cultural, scientific and political understanding of the oceans and how we relate to these vast watery worlds and each other as nations is now more important than ever.

A recent article published in Oceanography by Dr Phillip Clapham is entitled Managing Leviathan: Conservation challenges for the great whales in a post-whaling world

In the article, Dr Clapham reviews the history of modern whaling and its removal of nearly 3,000,000 whales in the 20th Century alone, reducing some populations by 99% of their pre-whaling abundance. 

To give some perspective, a reduction of this size would be comparable to reducing the current US population to a place where only the residents of the city of Los Angeles remain

Clapham rightly credits the recent research of Joe Roman, James McCarthy, Trish Lavery, Lavenia Ratnarajah, Andrew Pershing and their colleagues, all of whom point to the significant ecological role played by whales in the marine ecosystem and, as a result, the health of our shared planet. 

These data demonstrate that whales play an essential role in making iron, nitrogen and other nutrients available to surface dwelling phytoplankton, the primary producers who photosynthesize much of the air that we breathe and serve as a food source for tiny zooplankton who, themselves are preyed upon by fish and krill and other marine life which become sustenance for still others, including the commercially valuable fish on which much of the world relies. 

Data also reveal that whales sequester carbon and can help combat the increasing impacts of climate change. 

Clapham concludes what WDC has always believed that “the continued recovery of the world’s cetaceans is a conservation goal that is not just noble and appropriate but also very much in our self-interest.” 

That is to say, that WDC’s vision of a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free is not just a noble gesture of itself, but we would increasingly argue that it’s a necessary goal for a healthy planet on which humans can survive.

The bottom line is that we need cetaceans. 

We should not be setting upper limits at which we consider them no longer in need of protection – protecting their future protects ours.

The conversation must change from one in which we discuss their “management” to one in which we not only promote and enable their recovery, but ensure their protections even if they are “recovered”. 

There are no thresholds of removal that we should consider sustainable – whether it be the loss from whaling, ship strike, bycatch or live captures – removing them from their roles as ecosystem engineers is ultimately our loss and it needs to stop.  

Obviously recovering cetacean populations alone is not enough to create and maintain a healthy global ecosystem and economy, but the fact they have a significant role in these issues should not be dismissed.

This brings me to the second pillar of my argument – Social complexity in cetaceans

Cetaceans are not only keystone biological species in our battle for ecosystem protection, but they are the eyes that look back at us and remind us that this world was never just ours, but is a shared environment of billions of other non-human lives.

My colleague Philippa Brakes of Exeter University writing with Sasha Dall in Frontiers in Marine Science, have brought together many of the arguments for considering these emergent area in a June 2016 paper entitled Marine Mammal Behaviour: A Review of Conservation Implications”.

The authors note that, “Conservation may be hindered by an inadequate understanding of the behavioral ecology of some of these species” 

Furthermore they argue, “that for many of these socially complex, cognitive species understanding their behavioural ecology, capacity for social learning, and individual behavioural variation, may be a central tenant for their successful conservation.”

Indeed, individual and social behaviour is important when we think about how we draw a line around discrete populations or social units (in effect we need to get smart and look beyond genes).

The matter of how to define a “small population” has conventionally been resolved on genetic or geographic parameters (or both). Nevertheless, from the perspective of determining the influence of behaviour for conservation efforts, delimiters based on specific behaviours may also be relevant for predicting population persistence.

We are only able to scratch the surface (literally) of cetacean behaviour but we know enough now about how complex their societies are that we need to shift our thinking away from only considering genes, for these and other socially complex mammals.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of determining the influence of behaviour for conservation efforts, delimiters based on specific behaviours may also be relevant for predicting population persistence.

The authors note the work of Tixier et al. (2015) whose research on killer whale responses to an acoustic harassment device, to prevent long-line depredation, indicated habituation to the device However, despite being habituated to the device, exposure to the sound it produces while depredating lines may result in potentially harmful hearing damage.

Thus reinforcing the behavioural variation among populations and individuals also has the potential to influence responses to management efforts and to enhance or hinder conservation.

We, therefore, also need to think carefully about how we extend our new understanding to issues such as bycatch thresholds and mitigation measures. This is more a challenge from the scientists to you as policy makers, rather than offering you a solution I am afraid.

We also now know there is also good evidence now for what scientists call ‘consistent individual difference’, or personality, in a range of species – it is also important to consider how consistent individual differences in cetaceans and other marine mammals may influence a population’s response to human activities in the ocean

We should note it is no longer scientifically robust to think about the ecology of a species and the likely responses to environmental change, without also considering individual and social behaviour, capacity for social learning, social structures and cases where unique non-human cultures have evolved. This has implications not only for conservation efforts, but even for the evolution of some of these species.

How social segments within marine mammal populations are connected and how information flows between them also requires further elucidation particularly since multi-level societies may have differing behavioural responses to anthropogenic change

The roles of individuals within their social groups and even the ontogeny of senescence may have important implications for survivorship and conservation.

Since maintaining behavioural diversity is important for adaptation to novel environments, one of the principle goals of conservation, beyond conserving genetic biodiversity, should also be to conserve a wide range of behaviours and in some populations this may also include protecting discrete cultural units.

Understanding behavioural plasticity is also undoubtedly an important consideration for predicting how a species may respond to changes in their environment. The degree of plasticity within behavioural repertoires may provide important opportunities for adaptation.

Although resilience as a result of behavioural plasticity may act as a buffer to ecological change, there is also concern that behavioural adaptation could mask emerging ecological issues. For example, whilst a species may switch prey in the face of ecological pressures, if such buffers then become exhausted the consequences of change could be more rapid

The challenge ahead is teasing out the most relevant factors and understanding how to incorporate this new knowledge into management models and conservation efforts for marine mammals.

In 2010, in this very city at Helsinki University a group of academics, scientists, philosophers, legal specialists and conservationists came together to explore this new relationship with cetaceans through what became known as the Helsinki Declaration.

This gathering looked at the nexus between the emerging science on cetacean cognition and social complexity to ask what responsibilities the new scientific evidence engenders.

The meeting concluded that there is an emerging moral frontier that requires us to consider the value of the individual, not just to their ecosystems and populations, but also to their communities and family groups and to do some soul searching about what the individual interests of our enigmatic and complex oceanic cousins may be

Since then we have seen our Parent Convention, CMS, move forward to explore the importance of cultural and social complexity in cetaceans with respect to developing conservation policy.

I suggest that this emergent work is allowing us to see the fragility of values such as 1.7% bycatch triggers, when the survival of a sub-population may rely on the relationship of a small culturally critical group amongst the population as a whole.

In light of these emergent areas of scientific understanding our challenge to you and ASCOBANS is to start to work to understand that we are dealing with much more complex problems, but more importantly, a much more complex group of fellow creatures than we could have ever imagined 20 odd years ago.

It’s a level of complexity that requires us to make a leap of imagination in finding solutions, which not only benefit cetaceans, but the whole marine environment and ourselves.

In adopting an approach that recognises the cumulative and synergistic effects that anthropogenic threats pose, ASCOBANS is actively engaging with the next necessary steps to be able to protect these remarkable creatures.

WDC and others will continue to encourage you all to build on this in the coming months and years to create a truly holistic approach to creating positive conservation.

In summary 

WDC has been an active participant of ASCOBANS for many years. Politically the EU is facing challenging times, none more so in how to deal with the recent vote in the UK.

As a Brit, I am still coming to terms with the recent decision of some of my compatriots, but as a European and as the CEO of an NGO that works within, and across Europe, we share your concerns as to what this will mean for trans-boundary conservation.

But I would say that this is why ASCOBANS and similar Agreements are even more important.

As I have argued, despite all our years of work, we are now only just beginning to understand the remarkable nature of these fellow creatures.

During the last century especially, cetaceans have been a marker for our selfishness in abusing our small planet, but they can be, and should be, also a marker for how we can engage with a future in which we recognize the responsibility we have as custodians of this remarkable planet.

I would again remind us that In protecting cetaceans we protect ourselves.

It only remains me to thank the ASCOBANS Secretariat for their unwavering commitment to conservation. It’s a difficult balancing act for any Secretariat to be a partner to the Parties but at the same time staying true to the intentions and evolving role of the Agreement; yet the team at ASCOBANS have never hesitated to advance the cause of our marine cousins, and for that we are eternally grateful.

It only remains for me to wish you well in your deliberations this week and for a successful Meeting of the Parties.

Thank you