ConservationConservation

Conservation

Text provided by Dr. Greg Donovan

        Scientific Director

        International Whaling Commission

        Cambridge

 

Whether we like it or not, humans have directly and indirectly influenced the abundance and/or environment of many, if not most, species of cetaceans. Management can be said to be our attempt to limit and control the effects of humans on our environment, whilst obtaining the maximum 'benefit' from that environment. In fact, everything we do (including, and perhaps especially, doing nothing) can be said to be a management decision.

Although it might seem a semantic point, it should be remembered that we cannot 'manage cetaceans' – we can only manage human activities that may have an impact on cetaceans. Human impacts on cetacean populations can be broadly classified into two groups: those that result in instantaneous or near-instantaneous death (e.g. direct hunting, incidental catches in fishing gear, ship strikes) and those that whilst not resulting in rapid death, affect the overall 'fitness' of the population (e.g. habitat related issues including pollution, overfishing of prey species, habitat loss). Whilst the impact of the first group will be clearly significant at the level of an individual, it may not be significant at the population level, depending on the number involved relative to the total abundance. However, factors associated with the second group may not appear significant at the level of an individual but may be significant at the management stock level (e.g. individual females may appear healthy but if pollutant-induced physiological changes hinder their ability to reproduce, this may have long-term consequences for a population).

In most cases, management involves finding an appropriate balance between the ‘needs’ of users and the ‘needs’ of the environment. A major part of the difficulty of management is that there is often no consensus amongst humans as to what their needs are or indeed what they believe are the ‘needs’ of the environment – consequently there is no consensus as to what is an appropriate balance. Whilst science alone cannot solve this problem, what it can do is try to provide the necessary information on the status of cetaceans and their environment and allow the consequences of particular choices of human needs and balances to be predicted. This should enable fair and sensible decisions can be taken by those politicians and managers society chooses to represent it. Wise conservation and management of the environment requires a strong scientific base.

The first and most essential step in any management process is to define the objectives with respect to the status of the cetacean population(s) concerned and the users’ needs. Although this stage requires scientific advice it must include users and managers. The second is to assess the status of those populations in the light of those objectives. This is important for many reasons (and is linked to monitoring, see below) and in particular can be used to determine the whether there is a conservation problem and if so, how serious it is. The third is to determine management measures that we think will ensure that those objectives are met and will continue to be met (in other words to identify and where necessary mitigate possible threats – this may be called a conservation plan). It is again essential that users are involved at this stage – both so that they understand the need for, and help to determine, mitigation measures. The final and equally important step is to monitor the populations to make sure that the management measures are indeed being implemented and working properly. It is important to note that the monitoring stage is not an optional extra – in an uncertain world it is essential that however perfect we think our management measures might be, we check to ensure that they are indeed working as we expect them to. Thus monitoring must be seen as an integral part of management, not an optional extra.

If science is to play an appropriate role in such a process, this puts a number of important responsibilities on any scientists involved. One of the most important is that they do not allow their personal views of the appropriate balance between users’ needs and those of cetaceans, to prevent them from providing the best scientific advice, irrespective of its implications. While it is perfectly reasonable for scientists to have views on such issues, it is not appropriate to fall into the trap of acting as 'moral' judges, for which their views are no better or worse than anyone else's. It is also important that scientists are not arrogant. This applies both to being honest about what they don’t know and taking the inevitable scientific uncertainty into account when providing advice and to listening with respect to the views of people whose livelihoods may be affected by the advice they give. With that in mind, scientists should also recognise that draconian solutions (e.g. banning fishing) should usually be a last resort – particularly since such advice is often ignored and this may have with serious conservation consequences for the animals they are trying to help. Finally, once having reached a careful conclusion, they must stand by what they believe is the best scientific advice irrespective of whether it makes them unpopular with politicians, industry, special interest groups or other scientists.

 

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