Marine Mammal Conservation in the Light of Marine Spatial Use

Earlier this month, the European Cetacean Society (ECS) held their 31st annual conference in Middelfart, Denmark.  Established in 1987, ECS has several hundred members from more than 25 European countries as well as several countries outside Europe.  It aims to promote and advance the scientific studies and conservation efforts of marine mammals, and to gather and disseminate information about them to members of the Society and the public at large.  This year, the conference theme was “Conservation in the Light of Marine Spatial Use”.

Dr Hanna Nuuttila at the ECS 2017 conference in Denmark

Dr Hanna Nuuttila from Swansea University, has been attending ECS conferences since 2004 but found this year’s theme particularly relevant to her own work on the SEACAMS2 project.  “My research focuses on the environmental impacts of marine renewable energy devices, and specifically dealing with perceived impacts on marine mammals from these structures,” she says.  “Balancing the conservation of the marine environment with the pressing need for low (or no) carbon energy solutions to combat climate change is at the heart of my work in Swansea.”  The conference presented dozens of talks and posters relating to the assessment of marine renewable devices, from modelling collision risks to novel methods of studying animals in tidal rapids.

Dr Nuuttila considers such research to be important in the conservation of marine mammal species:  “The key element in marine mammal conservation is to understand how different uses of and development in the marine environment compete with each other and have a cumulative impact on the environment, and particularly on protected marine mammal species.”  To this end, this year she held a conference workshop on utilising marine mammal research as a tool for raising awareness for major environmental problems, focusing on the importance of marine mammal science in unblocking the potential for marine renewable energy.

However, as well as hearing about new developments in her own field, Dr Nuuttila also finds ECS a great resource for getting first-hand information on new research in marine mammal science as a whole.  The full ECS Conference Program is available online. She reports that the workshop on “Static Acoustic Monitoring (SAM) of toothed whales using echolocation clicks:  Loggers, experience, advances and challenges” was very informative and well attended.  Some of these talks have been particularly inspirational. “I was deeply moved by Armando M Jaramillo-Legorreta ‘The Dire Status of the Vaquita’,” says Dr Nuuttila.  “I am now writing a letter on behalf of the ECS council to make a statement to the Mexican government to support the conservation measures.

An artistic design of the endangered Vaquita, a Mexican porpoise

Also attending the conference was Swansea University PhD student Will Kay, who presented a speed talk about grey seal pup dispersal and predicted overlap risk with marine energy installations.  This forms part of his doctoral work investigating the impacts of marine renewable energy developments on grey seal movement ecology in tidal environments.  “The UK has a huge marine renewable resource in the form of tidal and wave energy, and this offers an excellent opportunity to develop green energy to reduce the need to burn fossil fuels,” says Will.  “However, any installation which is built to harness this resource may pose risks to the inhabitants of that marine environment.  The greatest challenge for the marine renewable industry at the moment is to understand the impacts of developments, and to determine how best we can install, say, tidal turbines to generate green electricity, whilst mitigating any potential detrimental impact.”  Will is hopeful that the results of his research can go on to inform marine renewable energy industries to help devise strategies for minimising risk, whilst informing policy makers for decisions regarding marine spatial planning.

This was Will’s first time attending an ECS conference, but he left feeling impressed.  “There were several highlights for me:  the phenomenal line up of keynote speakers; the diverse range of presentation topics and posters; Boris Culik’s Ambassador Dolphin “Fiete” presentation as part of the video evening; being able to meet and network with so many leading academics of whom I had read so much of their work; and finally I was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to present my research to such a large and expert audience in such a fantastic venue.”  Will also made use of the numerous student events held at ECS, such as the student night out and the student workshop on passive acoustic monitoring and use of PAMGuard software.  “The atmosphere of the ECS conference was incredible,” says Will. “Experts from across the globe visit to present their most current research and whilst the level of expertise present is extremely high (and possibly intimidating), everyone at the conference is very friendly and approachable, with the conference as a whole offering a really welcoming feel.  I believe this is because the ECS has such a fantastic focus on students and student participation, which is why this conference makes for such a brilliant opportunity for students.”

But, of course, it’s not just about presentations, networking and workshops.  Dr Nuuttila particularly enjoyed the social aspect of ECS, saying “As usual, the social events were absolutely spot on, especially the student party.  But this year’s team not only organised a brilliant, smooth-running conference but exceeded themselves on the last night’s banquet – food, venue and entertainment were all brilliant!”  Will adds “The venue (Hindsgavel Castle) was stunning, and I had an immense amount of fun cycling around Denmark on my free, conference-provided bike!

The beautiful ECS 2017 conference venue of Hindsgavel Castle, Denmark

Overall, the conference’s emphasis on conservation and marine spatial use reflects an increasing need to improve our understanding of movement ecology.  For Professor Luca Börger, an ecologist from Swansea University and Associate Editor for the Journal, marine mammals provide an excellent opportunity to answer a number of ecological questions regarding animal movements.  “Marine mammals have three-dimensional movements in a highly dynamic environment, which raises many important questions.  They have the constraint that they need to go up to breathe, so it’s all about how they manage to balance their performance with their energy reserves.”  Take, for instance, the earlier questions of how marine mammals may react to marine energy installations.  “Many of these structures will be appearing in the next few years.  It is a great idea to get renewable energy – but we don’t know how marine mammals will response to this,” says Professor Börger.  “On a broader scale, these turbines change the whole flow and turbulence of the water, so how do animals move in this high energy environment?  How do they use them?  How will it affect them, if at all?  We have this idea of energy landscapes.  Energy that the environment can provide.  Think of soaring birds – it is the same with the current in the sea, can help animals move and exert less effort.  If they go with the flow, it can be energy efficient.  But less so if they need to go against the flow.”

To help address knowledge gaps and encourage collaboration in the field of movement ecology, Professor Börger and several colleagues have created a Special Interest Group through the British Ecological Society (BES).  “Many people want to work on animal movements from many different fields – not just ecologists, but mathematicians, computer scientists, geographers…  And we now need different approaches, as datasets are getting larger and mathematical models need to be improved to deal with such data.  But among all the special interest groups of BES, there wasn’t one for this cross-disciplinary theme,” says Professor Börger.  And so, the recently created Movement Ecology SIG aims to provide a platform for facilitating exchange and collaborations in this wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary field of research.  This will be achieved through annual workshops (the first one being in July 2017), development of online resources, and other activities such as events for early career researchers.  So if ECS has sparked your interest in animal movements, be sure to visit the Movement Ecology SIG page for more information on how to get involved.

Sarah Marley
Blog Editor

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