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Covid and conservation – how we protected whales and dolphins together in 2020

© V. Mignon
© V. Mignon

As we begin a new year, our chair of trustees, Lisa Drewe, wanted to share with you her reflections on 2020 and her hopes for 2021. We're working through tough times together, but we are still filled with awe for whales and dolphins as well as hope and positivity for what we will achieve for them in the months and years to come. We wouldn't be here without you, our supporters so thank you.

Over to Lisa...

There are plenty of reasons why you might want to put 2020 behind you – it has been a gruelling and stressful time for many.  It has also been an opportunity for pause and reflection and, as I look back over the last 12 months, I feel genuinely optimistic for the future and more confident than ever in our mission at Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Lisa Drewe, WDC chair of trustees
Lisa Drewe, WDC chair of trustees

In it together

Faced with the threat of a worldwide pandemic, we have seen what is possible when people pull together – from the actions of governments to the efforts of health workers, scientists and countless unsung individuals.  We have been reminded that everything is connected and that there are consequences to our mistreatment of this precious planet – our only home.  We have taken solace from nature, from the sound of birdsong through our windows to accounts of whales and dolphins reclaiming empty shipping lanes.  Public concerns over climate breakdown have remained high, despite, or perhaps because of the health crisis, and there are loud calls for governments to prioritise a green recovery – not just return to the old way of doing things.

I am proud of how WDC has risen to the challenge of the pandemic – from those who have kept our UK office in Chippenham up and running, worked from home, or taken furlough, to all our staff and volunteers in our Scottish Dolphin Centre, in Germany, the US, Australia and our friends in South America – this has been a team effort.  We have also had considerable encouragement from our wonderful partners and supporters and it has been heart-warming to see so many examples of how we have all helped each other through this strange year.

An end to lockdown for two belugas

It is ironic that, as many of us adjusted to isolation at home, two former captive beluga whales, Little White and Little Grey, were feeling the sun on their backs and tasting the ocean again for the first time in years.  Opening the world’s first whale sanctuary in the midst of a global health emergency was not quite what we’d planned, but all credit is due to our team, supporters and, of course, our partners at the SEA LIFE Trust for pulling it off.  The project is a beacon of hope for around 3,500 whales and dolphins still languishing in featureless concrete tanks around the world.

LG and LW in bay week 1 the SLT Beluga Whale Sanctuary

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We will stop whaling

While many of us stood at our front doors clapping heroic NHS staff, it is hard to fathom the Norwegian and Japanese governments’ treatment of their whalers as key workers with further subsidies and support to undertake whaling.  We can, though, take some comfort from the overall continuing decline in whale meat consumption, another year with no Icelandic whaling, and the UK government’s commitment to back WDC’s call for an end to the transit of whale meat through UK ports.  The battle to stop whaling goes on, but it is one that we can and will win.

Our determination pays off

We can only guess at how whales and dolphins experienced humanity’s lockdown, but we can be pretty sure they didn’t miss the deafening noises we inflict on them.  A positive legacy of the pandemic would be for us to make more space for nature - especially in the ocean.  We were delighted therefore with the Scottish government’s announcement of new marine protected areas for Risso’s dolphins, the New Zealand government’s increased protections for Māui and Hector’s dolphins and the endorsement, by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, of our conservation plans for South America river dolphins.  These all resulted from fieldwork, lobbying and campaigning by WDC, sometimes over decades, and are a credit to the expertise and determination of our teams.

Risso's dolphins Sonja Eisfeld-Pierantonio WDC

Entanglement in fishing gear, known as ‘bycatch’ remains the biggest immediate threat to whales and dolphins worldwide and so we welcomed the decision by Asda to work with us to audit their supply chains. This is a major step by one of the UK’s largest supermarkets to show leadership in reducing bycatch.  It is a vindication of WDC’s efforts to engage enlightened businesses to become part of the solution to the nature and climate crises.

Later this year, world leaders will converge on Glasgow for the UN’s conference on climate change and the stakes could not be higher.  If we are going to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown we need, in the words of David Attenborough ’to work with nature rather than against it’ and WDC will be making the case for whales and dolphins as intelligent allies in the fight against climate change.

It is easy to be cynical about these big events - and the gap between politicians’ rhetoric and their actions - but this year feels different.  The pandemic, the urgency of the crises we are facing and the growing consensus from the public, businesses and governments on the need for action all give me hope.

And we should remember that we have been here before.  Thirty five years ago the world came together to call an end to the barbaric practice of commercial whaling, a decision that pulled whales back from the brink of extinction.  The threats facing whales, dolphins and porpoises have not gone away, and the solutions are complex and take time.  But anything is possible when we all pull together. Thank you for standing with us.

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