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WDC at the 66b meeting of the IWC Scientific Committee

The 66b meeting of the Scientific Committee (SC) of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was held in Bled, Slovenia from June 4th to 20th, 2016 and gathered together more than 150 international experts to discuss issues concerning conservation and management of cetaceans. We were there participating in the discussions of several sub-committees and presenting papers on different research studies and WDC’s programs.

We had anticipated that one of the most controversial issues would be the Japan’s renewed scientific whaling programme in Antarctica, (NEWREP-A). However, as the days went by within the meeting, discussions on this issue were delayed and it wasn’t until late during the meeting that those deliberations started focusing on the progress of the recommendations made by the Expert Panel last year. Discussions focused mostly on two of the 29 recommendations which Japan itself considered the most relevant related to improvements in model estimations by better precision of biological parameters and required sample sizes. Such discussions were driven within small working groups which provided technical advice. No consensus was obtained regarding whether or not Japan had properly addressed all the recommendations. Many participants claimed that Japan has not fulfil yet all the recommendations and so far continuation of lethal sampling in the 2016/17 season has not been justified. We will have to wait until the IWC plenary meeting that will take place from October 20th in Slovenia, to see if any decision is made regarding Japan’s whaling programme in Antarctica.

Moving to an issue completely opposed to whaling, the SC supported the proposal for the establishment of the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS) and agreed that this sanctuary has the potential to encourage collaboration and to facilitate development of coordinated scientific research and monitoring programs relevant to meet IWC management and conservation goals, as is the case for the existing Southern Ocean Sanctuary (SOS).

Within the sub-committee related to human induced mortality, bycatch, ship strikes and entanglement are issues of growing concern for the IWC since they affect several species of cetaceans all around the world. Very few mitigation measures have been proved to substantially reduce entanglement risk to large whales, such as keeping static gear out of areas used by whales, reducing fishing effort, and gear modifications. WDC presented a review identifying data gaps regarding understanding the extent and implications of global whale entanglement in active or derelict fishing gear, including inadequate reporting and a general underestimation of mortality and welfare concerns. WDC made several recommendations including measures to reduce entanglements, development of an IWC entanglement database, ongoing expansion of disentanglement training, and estimation of socio-economic impacts. WDC also presented a paper which calls for the development of a global framework to address the severe issue of cetacean bycatch in a wide range of fisheries, in addition to the establishment of effective regional agreements that help to advocate and enforce regional and national implementation of bycatch monitoring and mitigation measures. In discussion, the SC agreed that given the scale and severity of the problem, the IWC should seek collaboration with individual nations, experts and other intergovernmental bodies to reduce bycatch globally, and consider the potential establishment of a conservation management plan (CMP) on bycatch and entanglement. In addition, the SC made recommendations to implement management actions to reduce bycatch of many critically endangered populations, such as harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in the Baltic Sea, Maui’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui), Franciscanas (Pontoporia blainvillei), vaquitas (Phocoena sinus), river dolphins in the Amazonia (Inia geoffrensis and Sotalia fluviatilis), South Asian river dolphins (Platanista gangetica), among others.

One of the saddest moments within this meeting was a presentation on the vaquita’s situation, an endemic porpoise of the Gulf of California, Mexico who could actually become extinct in a very short time. This population has suffered a declination of 92% in the last 18 years because of bycatch in the illegal totoaba fishery with only 59 individuals remaining. If the current situation remains as it is now, by 2021 only 10 vaquitas would remain. The SC urged the government of Mexico to enforce a permanent gillnet ban throughout the species’ range since this is the only hope for the species to survive. Similar problems are faced by Maui’s dolphins for which urgent actions are needed to prevent from becoming extinct.

Photo: Vaquita / Copyright: Thomas Jefferson

Last year the IWC had approached the International Maritime Organization (IMO) through the submission of a document summarizing the work made by the IWC on ship strikes including identification of high risk areas and potential mitigation measures and the collection of data through the IWC ship strike database. Positive preliminary outcomes of this cooperation were that the IMO encouraged member governments to increase awareness of the ship strikes among vessel’s crew and authorities, including reporting any incident to the IWC Ship Strike Database in order to improve understanding of the issue and inform mitigation measures. Minor routing changes in high risk areas could lead to substantial reduction in strikes, thus the SC reiterated its previous recommendations for Sri Lanka and the Hellenic Trench, Greece, two identified high risk areas, where routing alternatives should be considered. 

In relation to the ship strike issue, members of WDC were involved in a study which discussed the need of a general and clear definition of ‘near miss’ events (related to close encounters between whales and vessels that do not involve physical contact) in order to be able to assess collision risk in different areas and with different vessel types and cetacean species, and develop mitigation measures.

Great news for our work in Latin America is that the Franciscana was selected as a good candidate for a CMP, given its current status as the most endangered cetacean in the South West Atlantic. Hopefully, the CMP will be approved by the Commission in the plenary meeting in October and will help to coordinate multilateral efforts to monitor abundance, trends and bycatch, mitigate bycatch, and develop and implement protected areas within the Franciscana’s range.

Many environmental threats to cetaceans were discussed in this meeting, such as chemical pollutants, marine debris, climate change, anthropogenic noise, diseases of concern, among others. The high levels of microplastic and the cummulative impacts from other threats such as entanglement, anthropogenic noise, and other pollutants could pose a major threat to the health of the “Vulnerable” population of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) in the Mediterranean Sea. Acknowledging the long term effects that oil and dispersants have on cetacean health, the SC recommended that high quality baseline information should be collected prior to any oil and gas survey activity as well as shipping lanes or ports developments, in order to conduct proper environmental impact assessments and recovery monitoring programs.

Mass stranding events were discussed such as the one occurred last year when more than 360 dead sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis) washed ashore in southern Chile, and the unusual mass stranding of 30 sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) along the coasts of the North Sea early this year. The SC recommended the establishment of an Expert Panel within the IWC to provide advice on development of national stranding response networks.

Regarding climate change, there is a growing amount of evidence linking climate change and observed changes related to cetaceans, especially in the Arctic region where ice retreat is a big issue which could accelerate indirect and cumulative impacts due to the expansion of anthropogenic activities such as higher levels of shipping and seismic surveys.

The effects of anthropogenic noise were considered in a pre-meeting workshop on acoustic masking where WDC presented a paper on the potential reduction in the echolocation and communication space for Commerson’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) from high and mid-frequency ship noise in shallow waters off the Argentine Patagonian coast. The effects of chronic anthropogenic noise on the marine acoustic environment in many regions with potential severe impacts on some cetacean populations were recognized and the SC recommended that management efforts should be made in order to keep quiet areas quiet and make noisy areas quieter.

This year, the priority topic within the small cetaceans subcommittee was the revision of the taxonomy and population structure of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) in the Atlantic Ocean. Particular concern was expressed regarding the poor conservation status of the species in Argentina where apparently less than 200 individuals remain. The SC recommended an urgent and updated assessment of the population status in the country, including an estimation of the rate of decline and an examination of causal factors with the primary focus on the apparently reduced reproductive success in the population.

Other issue of concern in Argentina is the alarming high rate of calf mortality for Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) in Peninsula Valdés over the last decade. Over the last two years, 69 whales were found dead and the numbers increase to 737 individuals since 2003. A CMP was established for this species in the South West Atlantic Ocean in 2012 in order to develop long-term collaborative actions to ensure the effective conservation of the species and its habitat. Some results presented at this meeting showed evidence that kelp gull harassment could be compromising calf health. The proportions of living mother and calves with wounds from gulls have increased from 2% in the 1970s to 99% in the 2000s. Other still unidentified factors might contribute to the high mortality which could have even a greater impact because calves stress due to gull attacks. Further work should be continued to explore other pathogenic causes as well as nutritional and physiological stress. Members of WDC presented results from an opportunistic vessel survey which supports previous findings on a probable feeding ground within the Patagonian Shelf. We will continue these studies to try to identify migratory routes and feeding grounds, and contribute to the understanding of the factors driven the high rates of calf mortality in Peninsula Valdés. The population in the eastern South Pacific found off Chile and Peru is “Critically Endangered” with less than 50 mature individuals. Further research should focus on identifying a breeding area for this population.

Moving to the North Hemisphere, a visual and acoustic survey obtained very few acoustic detections and no sightings of North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) in historical habitats in the northwestern Gulf of Alaska, showing that the status of this poorly studied population is of concern and increased research efforts are needed. The current status of the severely depleted North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) population is unclear, the number of calves in recent years is low and there is concern about the potential impacts of the increasing number of seismic surveys within US and Canadian waters.

Also WDC actively participated in discussions of the Southern hemisphere subcommittee and presented results on the Antarctic cruises led by Argentina in the western Antarctic Peninsula, where members from WDC’s Latin America are conducting acoustic and visual studies since 2014. This year, we presented a paper on summer occurrence of sei whales in sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Once again, the SC reiterated its serious concern about the status of the “Endangered” Arabian Sea humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) population and the anthropogenic threats it faces, especially entanglements and ship strikes. In 2015, a group of researchers formed the Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) with the main aim of sharing resources, knowledge and collaborating on research and conservation initiatives. The ASWN presented an update on the progress made: long-term acoustic monitoring, satellite tagging and genetic studies are being conducted in the area and there is an immediate urgency to develop mitigation measures on the possible impacts of high vessel traffic and existing artisanal fisheries on this endangered population.

I’ve tried to summarize above some important topics discussed within the 66b IWC SC meeting but many other relevant issues were considered and you can access the full report and documents of this meeting online.