Ocean News

Ocean's Mammals at Crucial Crossroads, Say Researchers

The ocean’s mammals are at a crucial crossroads – with some at risk of extinction and others showing signs of recovery, researchers say.

Minke whale. Credit Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing LabIn a detailed review of the status of the world's 126 marine mammal species – which include whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, manatees, dugongs, sea otters and polar bears – scientists found that accidental capture by fisheries (bycatch), climate change and pollution are among the key drivers of decline.

Humpback whale. Credit Rob HarcourtWeddell seal 1. Credit Rob HarcourtA quarter of these species are now classified as being at risk of extinction (vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List), with the near-extinct vaquita porpoise and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale among those in greatest danger.

Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Credit Rob HarcourtConservation efforts have enabled recoveries among other species, including the northern elephant seal, humpback whale and Guadalupe fur seal.

Non-whale photograph taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes July 2017 tagging field season off southern California.The international research team – led by the University of Exeter and including scientists from more than 30 institutions in 13 countries – highlight conservation measures and research techniques that could protect marine mammals into the future.

Non-whale photograph taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes July 2016 tagging field season off southern California."We have reached a critical point in terms of marine mammal conservation," said lead author Dr Sarah Nelms, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall.  

Non-whale photograph taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes July 2017 tagging field season off southern California."Very few marine mammal species have been driven to extinction in modern times, but human activities are putting many of them under increasing pressure.

Photograph  taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute's 2016 tagging field season off southern California."Our paper examines a range of conservation measures – including Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), bycatch reduction methods and community engagement – as well as highlighting some of the species that are in urgent need of focus."

Non-whale photograph taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes July 2017 tagging field season off southern California.The researchers say 21% of marine mammal species are listed as "data deficient" in the IUCN Red List – meaning not enough is known to assess their conservation status.

Photograph  taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute's 2014 tagging field season off southern California.Credit Craig Hayslip Marine Mammal Institute Oregon State University taken under NMFS permit 4This lack of knowledge makes it difficult to identify which species are in need of protection and what actions should be taken to save them.

Professor Brendan Godley, who leads the Exeter Marine research group, said: "To continue conservation successes and reverse the downward trend in at-risk species, we need to understand the threats they face and the conservation measures that could help.

Photograph  taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute's 2014 tagging field season off southern California.Western gray whale off the northeast coast of Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk"Technology such as drone and satellite imaging, electronic tags and molecular techniques are among the tools that will help us do this.

Photograph of humpback whale taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes 2014 tagging field season in SE AlaskaPhotograph of humpback whale taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes 2014 tagging field season in SE Alaska"Additionally, sharing best practice will empower us – and this is why we are so proud to be part of such a large and international group for this project."

Crab eater seal. Credit Rob HarcourtPhotograph of humpback whale taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes 2017 tagging field season off southern California.By the University of Exeter

Journal Reference

The paper, published in the journal Endangered Species Research, is entitled: "Marine mammal conservation: Over the horizon." The paper is open-access, and once published it will be available at: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01115

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