Scientists call for global protection of cetaceans

Posted on 7 September 2020

Over 250 cetacean scientists, including from South Africa, signed a statement ‘of grave concern’ for global action to protect whales and dolphins from the threat of extinction at the hands of human activity.

Leading experts from over 40 countries across the globe warn some cetaceans will likely be extinct in our lifetimes without action in our polluted, human-dominated seas.

Cetacean experts have signed an open statement to global leaders calling for action to urgently address the precarious situation of many populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises, (collectively ‘cetaceans’) many of which face extinction threats due to harmful human activity such as incidental bycatch by fisheries, chemical and noise pollution, global warming and ship strikes.

The scientists say that of the 90 living cetacean species, more than half now have a concerning conservation status, and the trend of action coming ‘too little too late’ must end.

Without urgent action, they predict the Northern Atlantic right whale could vanish, along with the critically endangered vaquita in Mexico which sits ‘poised on the knife edge of extinction.’

Signed by some of the world’s leading cetacean scientists in Mexico, South Africa, the UAE, Brazil, UK, New Zealand, Colombia etc, the statement warns

‘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. They are also sentinels of the health of our seas, oceans and, in some cases, major river systems and the role of cetaceans in maintaining productive aquatic ecosystems, which are key for our survival as well as theirs, is also becoming clearer.’

An alarming number of cetacean species are in peril, with 13 species listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ or ‘Endangered’, seven as ‘Vulnerable’ and seven as ‘Near Threatened’, whilst 24 species are ‘Data Deficient’ and may also be imperiled.

Additionally, there are 32 subspecies and other distinct cetacean populations which are presently either Endangered or Critically Endangered.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are adversely affected by many human-induced factors including chemical and noise pollution, loss of habitat and prey, climate change, ship-strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and incidental take in fishing operations.

The scientists call on countries with cetaceans in their waters to take precautionary action as soon as possible to protect species from human activities, including fully resourced monitoring to observe and address activities at sea. International bodies such as the International Whaling Commission and the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, must also be strengthened and supported by all nations, and regional fisheries bodies must urgently address fishing-related threats to cetaceans.

Signatories include:

  • Experts from the University of St. Andrews, UK;
  • The Zoological Society of London, UK;
  • The British Antarctic Survey;
  • The IUCN SSC/WCPA Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force,
  • California Academy of Science, USA.

The Statement was coordinated by Mark Simmonds OBE, a visiting research fellow at the University of Bristol and the senior marine scientist with Humane Society International.

Simmonds explains: ‘While a few whale populations are showing recovery – illustrating that good outcomes are possible when adverse pressures are adequately removed – many more are in decline and some are critically endangered. This unprecedented statement of grave concern from experts across the world was born mainly from discussions in the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission in which it became apparent that many marine researchers were highly concerned about the status of the cetacean populations known to them. It is vital that we learn from past mistakes and don’t leave it too late to save some of the largest animals on Earth. Let this be a historic moment when realising that whales are in danger sparks a powerful wave of action from everyone, regulators, scientists, politicians and the public to save our oceans.’

Dr Els Vermeulen of the University of Pretoria’s Whale Unit, who helped to coordinate the statement, adds: ‘This is a unique expression of concern from the professional community of scientists around the world who specialise in these animals. Relative to many other species, cetaceans are long-lived and slow breeding, making them extremely vulnerable to disturbances that can lead to population impacts, such as noise and chemical pollution. For many the number one threat is being taken, intentionally or unintentionally, in fishing nets. We need measures to be urgently implemented to address all such threats.’

Read the statement in full here on the University of Pretoria’s Whale Unit website

Image credit: Unsplash


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