One for the Whales: The Biennial Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia

A first for Canada’s “Ocean City,” the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) held its 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals at the World Trade and Convention Centre (WTCC) in downtown Halifax. Across from the Grand Parade square at City Hall, the conference packed the WTCC and the adjacent ScotiaBank Centre with all things marine and mammalian for seven days 22-27 October 2017. The event brought together over 1,500 scientists, managers, policymakers, and students from more than 60 countries to discuss work at the front lines of marine mammal science and conservation.

I (SRB) had the opportunity to attend several events over the course of the week. Emma Marotte (EM), a colleague with the Dalhousie University Master of Marine Management program, also attended as a student volunteer, a speaker, and an SMM member with a lifelong passion for whales. Emma spent the 2017 summer working with marine biologist Laura Feyrer, a Dalhousie PhD student under the supervision of Dr. Hal Whitehead, sailing the Flemish Cap aboard the R/V Balaena, about 500-kilometres east of Newfoundland. The team’s goal was to collect genetic and photo-identification information on what is believed to be a previously unknown and undescribed population of northern bottlenose whales inhabiting the international waters around an area known as the Sackville Spur. Emma spoke about her work in a speed talk titled “Policy and Management Considerations for Beaked Whale Conservation in International Waters.”

Dalhousie researchers sail the Flemish Cap in the North Atlantic, surveying a newly discovered population of northern bottlenose whales. Summer, 2017. (Photograph by Emma Marotte.)

Now after the conference, Emma and I have had a chance to discuss what we heard, saw, and experienced. Here are the highlights.


Part One – Calling All Scientists: A New Kind of Introduction

EM: The conference began with opening remarks from the conference co-chairs and the president of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, Dr. Jay Barlow. The program then progressed into the first plenary talk, delivered by Dr. Asha de Vos. She is a marine biologist who runs the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, the first long-term study on blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean. While the first portion of her talk represented an engaging examination of the lives of this unique population of whales, a greater message was intended for the audience. Like so many other scientific fields, the study of marine mammals is largely dominated by scientists who are predominantly white and male. Dr. de Vos called on members of the marine mammal science community to begin recognizing the enormous potential that lies in people from developing countries like her own, and what they might contribute to the field if given the opportunity. She reminded everyone to “check their egos” and remember that marine mammal science should be for the sake of the animals it aims to understand and protect, not for publications or prestige. A pioneering woman in marine mammalogy, Dr. de Vos kicked off the conference with passion and set the tone for a week filled with hope, determination, and humility.

Dalhousie researchers sail the Flemish Cap in the North Atlantic, surveying a newly discovered population of northern bottlenose whales. Summer, 2017. (Photograph by Emma Marotte.)

Part Two – “What are you going to do about it?: Science Communication for the Modern Scientist

SRB: A feature event on the first day was a panel about science communication, hosted by filmmaker Weibke Finkler of the University of Otago in New Zealand. The panel, “Creating the Narrative: Science Communication for Conservation,” focused on new and emerging ways to communicate marine mammal science and effectively engage audiences, as species worldwide face declining population rates. The speakers included marine mammal biologist Shane Gero, a Dalhousie PhD graduate now at Aarhus University in Denmark, science educator Bill McWeeny from Maine, photojournalist Nick Hawkins, and metal artist Jamie Brown. Prior to the session, Dr. McWeeny, accompanied a group of his elementary school students on stage. Known as The Calvineers, the students’ aim to bring attention to the plight of the North Atlantic right whale. McWeeny and the Calvineers have been active for more than a decade, inspired by the tale of a young female right whale named Calvin which was orphaned at eight months old after her mother was killed by a ship strike. Dalhousie researchers have followed the whale’s movements as best they could. Miraculously, Calvin managed to survive on her own, later overcoming a serious entanglement incident from which she was rescued by an emergency response team off the coast of Cape Cod. Eventually, Calvin gave birth to a calf, more than a dozen years after the death of her mother. This news made headlines, and ultimately The Calvineers were born due to McWeeny’s continued interest in the story. Today, this group specializes in educating other school children about right whale conservation, presenting their work both to their peers and to professional scientists, as they did at this conference. The group finished their exposé by unveiling the right whale “Bill of Rights,” written from the perspective of a whale, and a song about right whale conservation, to which the audience of hundreds gave a standing ovation.

McWeeny spoke about science education concepts employed with the Calvin Project, and the work that many of members of The Calvineers pursued in science and beyond, after a childhood introduction to marine biology and conservation. Next, hailing from New Brunswick, photojournalist Nick Hawkins discussed a recent project he undertook in collaboration with Canadian Wildlife Magazine on North Atlantic right whale entanglement in the Bay of Fundy. Hawkins expressed frustration, even failure, following his work on the story, as it did not garner the attention he had hoped it would. Hawkins felt he had not captured the “hard-hitting” images that he should have; the entanglement images capable of rendering an emotional response from his readers. He spoke also about the death of lobster fisherman Joe Howlett, a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, who died in an accident while disentangling a victimized whale off the Fundy coast. The story gained international attention, and Hawkins, who spoke glowingly and emotionally about Howlett and his work, discussed the need for scientists and communicators to consider how they can connect with audiences at a base level; how the power of emotion can be harnessed within science to compel people towards action.

New Brunswick metal artist Jamie Brown complimented Hawkins by explaining his past as relatively uninvolved in the world of marine research, but who was touched by what scientists he encountered in his work as an artist had revealed to him about conservation. He described the power of those conversations for learning about ocean science and marine mammals, and how they influenced his art, and ultimately his life.

Shane Gero wrapped up the panel by discussing themes in science communication more broadly – the move away from inaccessible, “Ivory Tower” science and siloed language, and the shifting duty of scientists today. Gero explained that previously he had understood an interest in science to be driven by a desire to ask and answer the question, “What is going on?” As a pre-cursor to the rest of the conference, Gero discussed why he felt that the duty of the scientist – particularly marine mammal scientists – has now become twofold. Understanding what is going on is still important, said Gero, but a second question must now follow: “What are you going to do about it?”

Dalhousie researchers sail the Flemish Cap in the North Atlantic, surveying a newly discovered population of northern bottlenose whales. Summer, 2017. (Photograph by Emma Marotte.)

Part Three“My certificate, please: Foraging Science and Incentivizing Regulatory Compliance

EM: For the duration of week, the conference was jam packed with oral presentations, speed and video talks, and poster sessions during which attendees could showcase their work. Presentations were grouped to cover a variety of topics including conservation, acoustics and communication, habitat and distribution, and behavioural ecology, among others. While it was impossible to see everything, here are highlights of some of the talks.

Well-known killer whale researcher Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard from the Vancouver Aquarium spoke about the status of the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) that inhabit the waters off southern Vancouver Island. As dietary specialists, the SRKWs feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon, but declining salmon populations are putting this whale population at greater risk of extinction. In an illustration of science’s capacity to inform policy, Dr. Barrett-Lennard called for a system of quick-to-implement, temporary fishing closures to be established as needed in targeted locations over the fishing season to allow for populations of salmon to recover.

Michael Thompson from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary delivered an amusing and engaging talk about the ways in which incentives can help bring about regulatory compliance by marine industry players. Ship strikes pose a serious threat to many whale species, but the risk can be reduced if ships slow down in certain areas. With a series of “report cards” outlining the degree of compliance by various shipping companies in reducing speed, poor performers were made aware of their infractions, while compliant, whale-safe companies were awarded with a certificate of recognition. The efficacy of this tactic was illustrated by commitments from several sub-standard performers to take immediate action to remedy the situation and prevent future transgressions. During the talk, Thompson played a recorded voicemail in which one company representative called to announce that the compliant company had not received its certificate, and would like to have it, please.

Within the realm of scientific research, a very informative talk was given on beaked whale foraging tactics and prey requirements. Beaked whales are among the least understood cetacean species, so studies that advance knowledge on their life history are extremely valuable. Kelly Benoit-Bird from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute showed that beaked whales appear to rely on large-sized squid in small, patchy aggregations. Favouring areas with high concentrations of prey makes sense because of the high energy cost incurred during deep dives – a behaviour common amongst beaked whales. This more detailed understanding of beaked whale habitat and prey requirements ultimately helps in the protection of these enigmatic species.

NOAA Photo Library /

Part Four – “Years, not decades, to fix this problem: Entanglement, Ship Strikes, and New Pain for the North Atlantic Right Whale

SRB: Midway through the conference, another plenary panel on the state of the North Atlantic right whale was a main event. A troubling number of right whale deaths have occurred in the North Atlantic over the past few years and was the subject of headline news in 2017. The population, largely stable and hovering between 300 and 400 for much of the twentieth century, had been steadily increasing between 1990 and 2010, increasing from 270 individuals to 483, according to researcher and panel member Peter Corkeron of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Corkeron and collaborators, including Richard Pace, and Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium, authored a paper in September describing a method to improve the accuracy of right whale population counts. The paper, published in Ecology and Evolution, also called for swift conservation action, as more than fourteen known North Atlantic right whale deaths were recorded in 2017 (at the time of the conference). These numbers came on the heels of a general decline over the past seven years, particularly of adult females, which dropped from 200 in 2010 to 186 in 2015, and continue to decrease. In a NOAA press release about the publication, Richard Pace stated: “Although our work directly reveals a relatively small decrease, the subtext is that this species is presently in dire straits.”

The panel was rounded out by Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society, Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Amy Knowlton with the New England Aquarium. These speakers noted that the true story of population decline can be misrepresented by individual whale counts, as opposed to the number of breeding-age whales. For example, an August 2017 article in The Globe and Mail on North Atlantic right whale deaths stated the population is “close to 500 around the world.” This number can be misleading, as it’s likely only about 100 breeding-age females remain, upon which the future of the species depends.

Dalhousie whale researcher Christopher Taggart echoed this point. He used an opportunity during the discussion to urge the media to be more diligent in reporting population statistics, and advocate for a focus on still breeding females. “I don’t care about the other ones!” exclaimed Taggart emphatically to a round of applause.

The panel members alluded to the fact that while many whales are killed in ship strikes or entanglement incidents – the primary recorded causes of death amongst the animals – many also survive these incidents, albeit with serious injuries. Some speculate that the population of breeding females could be lower, as many whales that experience entanglement or shipping accidents are no longer able to breed after injury. It is estimated that some 80-percent of North Atlantic right whales will experience an entanglement incident over the course of their lifetime, and many of those still alive bear permanent scars. Tonya Wimmer described her experience in the field working with dead, injured, or entangled whales, but cut her talk short, as she was overcome with emotion. A slide displayed by Mark Baumgartner summed up the thinking in the room: “If nothing changes, we will wipe out the 105 breeding females that are alive today in 23 years. We have years, not decades, to fix this problem. The longer we wait, the problem will become impossible to fix.”

Dalhousie researchers sail the Flemish Cap in the North Atlantic, surveying a newly discovered population of northern bottlenose whales. Summer, 2017. (Photograph by Emma Marotte.)

Part Five – Beyond Conservation: Exploring the Mystery of Marine Mammal Culture

EM: The third plenary talk was given by Dr. Hal Whitehead, a well-known and respected cetacean researcher based at Dalhousie University. He has spent decades studying whales all over the world, with long-running studies on sperm whale families in the tropics and northern bottlenose whales on the Scotian Shelf. His talk differed both in tone and subject matter from the previous plenaries; a welcome change from much of the doom and gloom surrounding the desperate situations of some highly endangered marine mammals. Dr. Whitehead’s research suggests that in cetaceans, genetic transmission from parents to calf can be influenced by cultural practices common to specific clans or matrilineal groups; a process known as “cultural hitchhiking.” He hypothesizes that among all whale species with matrilineal social systems (observed in killer whales, sperm whales, and bottlenose dolphins), uniquely low genetic diversity is most readily explained by this cultural hitchhiking phenomenon. In killer whales, for instance, many eco-types have evolved over time, with familial clans specialized to certain habitats. Similarly, in sperm whales, many different cultural clans exist, each with a unique subset of varied cultural practices. It may be surprising to some to think that non-human animals can possess culture – that they may be genetically shaped by that culture – but Dr. Whitehead presented compelling evidence for what is certainly a humbling idea.

Dalhousie researchers sail the Flemish Cap in the North Atlantic, surveying a newly discovered population of northern bottlenose whales. Summer, 2017. (Photograph by Emma Marotte.)

Part Six – Back from the Brink: Desperate Times, Revolutionary Ideas, and Moving Forward

SRB: Overall, it appears that marine mammal science has become necessarily tethered to conservation issues. While many ways were available to engage with the SMM conference, to me the overarching story was one of population decline amongst a variety of species around the world, and an accompanying call for action. The North Atlantic right whale was the star of the show, but a number of other species face critical endangerment too. Most strikingly, the vaquita, in the Gulf of California, challenged by illegal fishing and estimated at total of 19 individuals remaining, and the Taiwanese white dolphin, down to 70 animals, threatened by development proposals in the Taiwanese Strait. Immersing oneself in the world of biodiversity loss and potential extinction can be an emotionally and mentally draining affair. But solutions are out there.

In the North Atlantic, one of the most exciting innovations involves a lineless brand of ground fishing gear. Instead of running lines up to locational buoys that fishers have traditionally used to mark their traps – the same lines that ultimately entangle right whales and other marine mammals – the new model employs an electric transponder, and a rig to release the buoy from the net, attached to the seafloor, as the fishers approach to gather their catch. This means that the lines only run for the brief instance during which harvest takes place, greatly decreasing the chance for encounter between whales and lines. Further signs of positive direction: the research-backed shift in shipping lanes that has reduced whale strikes by 80-percent in Bay of Fundy over the past few years, and recent Ministerial promises to protect the North Atlantic right whale.

These technologies, engagement programs, policy initiatives, and other solutions introduced over the course of the conference have proven effective in the past. It is now the job of marine scientists to continue to identify the right levers to pull to ensure conservation success. From industrial fixes and ground-breaking research to petitions, activist campaigns, and educational initiatives, the SMM conference was full of passionate people working towards sound science and a more harmonious relationship between human beings and marine mammals in the sea. It now falls to the rest of us to make sure that the information is widely disseminated, and that politicians and policymakers at various levels of government are aware of the issues and informed about the solutions available to solve them.


Authors: Simon Ryder-Burbidge and Emma Marotte


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