Thanks support from the Jessica Rekos Foundation and from supporters like you, I was recently able to present our work to save endangered Southern Resident orcas at the 15th International Conference of the American Cetacean Society (ACS) in Monterey, California.
This three-day conference brings whale enthusiasts together with scientists, policy makers, conservationists, advocates, and students from all over the world. The theme this year was “Fifty Years of Whale Conservation: Reflections and Innovations.” A large part of the conference was dedicated to examining the changing threats to whales and new approaches to conservation, which was a perfect platform to link to WDC’s message that humans NEED whales to keep our shared planet healthy.
We were able to share that idea through a poster presentation showing the ecosystem role of whales and the changing attitude in conservation. Recognizing that whales are necessary for healthy oceans gives us a whole new approach to policy and increasing protections for whales and dolphins. Our Southern Resident orca work on ecosystem restoration is a great example of how – and why – to approach whale conservation with consideration for the whole ecosystem and the role whales play in their local habitat.
One of the presenters, Dave Johnston from Duke University brought up an interesting point that also connects to WDC’s quest to educate the public about whales as important members of a healthy ocean ecosystem. He pointed out that the relatively recent boom in coastal development and the rise of industry in near-shore areas occurred at a time when marine mammals were in a depleted state, with many populations hunted to near extinction since the rise of industrial whaling. Most of that development occurred without any consideration of how to live with recovering or recovered marine mammal populations – we don’t know how to find the balance between human development and healthy marine mammal populations, because we haven’t really faced that challenge in modern history. Now, with some marine mammal populations increasing in number and expanding into areas where they haven’t been found in more than a hundred years, we face new challenges living side-by-side with these ocean beings.
There was also a lot of discussion about the recent National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ruling for humpback whales, which removed nine of 14 distinct populations of humpbacks from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Humpback populations in many parts of the world are increasing, but in some areas they’re still in trouble, and as the whales continue to recover, they are facing new threats. This continued the theme of learning how to co-exist with marine mammals in areas where we’re not used to them, such as off the west coast, where entanglements of whales – especially humpbacks – are on the rise. Humpback whale populations in the Pacific are growing, and with recent ocean conditions (El Niño and the Blob) they are feeding very close to shore, often among vast amounts of fishing gear. Two populations that feed off the California coast are still considered threatened or endangered under the new ESA designations – the Mexico and Central America groups of humpbacks.
To learn how to cope with this “new normal” and reduce the risk of entanglement for whales, California is developing a Whale Entanglement Working Group to encourage collaborations between fisheries, researchers, and NGOs to reduce the co-occurrence and impacts of entanglements in California waters. This is an exciting development, and one WDC looks forward to working with. Our colleague from the Center of Coastal Studies, Scott Landry, talked about past challenges in addressing entanglements on the east coast, which has a longer history of overlap between whales and commercial fishing, and suggested that steps be taken on the west coast to work as collaboratively as possible. WDC and partners have been working on solutions to the entanglement problem on the east coast, and we can offer valuable knowledge and a broad understanding of what does or does not work to these new efforts on the west coast.
I also had the privilege of going on the ACS whale watch with one of Monterey’s responsible whale watch organizations, and saw some incredible humpback lunge-feeding and a couple breaches, plus Risso’s and Pacific white-sided dolphins, and lots of California sea lions. It is through your support that we had an opportunity to share our work and learn more about some exciting new efforts that are happening to keep our planet healthy through the recovery of whale and dolphin populations. Many thanks to you, and I’ll continue to keep you updated on the latest conservation work.
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