On 3 September, a statement of concern regarding the critical status of marine life forms was published on the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute (MRI) Whale Unit website. The statement was coordinated by Dr Els Vermeulen, Research Manager at the MRI Whale Unit, in conjunction with Dr Mark Simmonds, a research fellow at the University of Bristol. The statement underpinned the dire status of the cetacean populations, such as dolphins, whales, and porpoise marine forms, citing the high risk of extinction exacerbated by global inaction. The open statement calls on countries with cetacean species in their coastal waters to prioritise conservation and precautionary action against these species through the implementation of advanced monitoring technologies. Furthermore, all nations are called to channel funding and support to strengthen international bodies concerned with the conservation of cetacean populations.
Dr Vermeulen expressed that the need for the statement arose during the recent meeting of the International Whaling Commission, where it was said that the scientific sphere holds a responsibility to bring the dire conservation status of cetaceans to the forefront of government attention. Dr Vermeulen mentions that “too little is done too late, and by publishing [their] science [they] do not ensure the right people understand the right message, hence the idea to put together the statement, which is gaining support as [they] speak”. As of date of publication of this article, 300 professionals have signed the statement. Dr Vermeulen says that the intention of the statement is to garner the attention of government officials and larger NGOs towards the status of marine mammal species. “It is hoped that this document can serve for many more years to come, mainly to lobby with government officials to take action both nationally in their own countries as in international bodies such as the International whaling Commission, CITES, etc”.
“Furthermore, all nations are called to channel funding and support to strengthen international bodies concerned with the conservation of cetacean populations.“
The statement compiles a comprehensive list of critically endangered cetacean species, citing that of the 90 living species of cetaceans, 13 species are ‘critically endangered’ or ‘dangered’, seven species have a ‘vulnerable’ status, seven are ‘near threatened’, while 24 species are classified as ‘data deficient’ as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) listing. The statement warns that the late recognition of these data deficient species coincides with the current status of that cetacean species.
There are mentions of three instances in the statement where “enough was known about the situation of the species concerned for these dramatic declines to have been avoided, but that the political will to take action has been lacking”. The North Atlantic Whale, whose critical population range resides near the coast of wealthy countries served as an example of inaction. The vaquita porpoise species is currently a critically endangered species with a mere ten individuals present globally, while the Chinese river dolphin attained a ‘possibly extinct’ status by the IUCN.
Dr Vermeulen says that the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and the Bryde’s whale are the most endangered coastal marine mammal species with their population decline aggravated by overfishing, and chemical and acoustic pollution. Dr Vermeulen ascertains that “with Whale Unit, [she is] coordinating the South African SouSA consortium (Sousa for Sousa plumbea = Indian Ocean humpback dolphin) which aims to bring together all national researchers to improve our understanding on the population declines of this species, and further lobby with government to take action to reduce human caused mortality (lift shark nets, regulate octopus and rock lobster fisheries etc.)”. Dr Vermeulen cites that in South Africa, Southern right whales have shown increased incidences of calving failure and a decreased prevalence along South African shores that is attributed to the decreased food availability in the feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean, resulting in a decreased body condition and therefore a reduced ability to reproduce and complete migration.
Dr Vermeulen currently coordinates the SouSA Consortium that aims to culminate all national researchers affiliated with Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, and occupies a leading role in the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin Task Teak of the International Whaling Commission, that is responsible for formulating conservation efforts. Furthermore, Dr Vermeulen co-leads the southern right whale research team of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership. She is currently setting up the global Southern right whale consortium which looks to bring together all international specialists on the species, to coordinate research and conservation efforts. Dr Vermeulen asserts that “[…] the collaboration among researchers is the key in saving species who do not know national borders, […] such international collaborations are critical to save species from extinction”.
“Dr Vermeulen says that the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and the Bryde’s whale are the most endangered coastal marine mammal species with their population decline aggravated by overfishing…“
Currently, the MRI Whale Unit at UP undertakes research related to the conservation of cetaceans. A global research initiative involving Southern Right Whales is co-led by the MRI Whale Unit and the Southern Ocean Research Partnership. The project aims to enhance the understanding behind calving failure in the southern right whales globally, which can then be used to make inferences on conservation strategies pertaining to the South African population of southern right whales. The MRI Whale Unit is set to conduct their annual aerial survey of southern right whales from 28 September to mid-October. The 41st aerial survey, serves as one of the longest running datasets of any mammal species worldwide. Dr Vermeulen ascertains that data generated on the population distribution of coastal baleen whale species in South Africa allowed the Whale Unit to engage in lobbying with the government regarding ship strikes and entanglements. Dr Vermeulen cites that there is a huge shortage of funding and bursaries channelled in the direction of cetacean related research that prevents potential conservation efforts.
The statement warns that “the lack of concrete action to address threats adversely affecting cetaceans in our increasingly busy, polluted, over-exploited and human-dominated seas and major river systems, means that many populations, one after another, will likely be declared extinct within our lifetimes[…] Whales, dolphins and porpoises are seen and enjoyed all over the world, and are valued as sentient, intelligent, social and inspiring species; we should not deny future generations the opportunity to experience them.” The statement hopes to channel adverse pressures in the direction of governing bodies in order to formulate urgent measures. By establishing the pattern of global inaction that has accumulated over the years, scientists across the globe hope the statement will serve as a historic gesture in the direction of cetacean conservation efforts.