Best Practices for Collecting Marine Mammal Abundance Data Aboard Oceanic Surveys Workshop
In August 2015, the Executive Secretariat of the Pacific Action Plan Southeast with the cooperation of NMFS convened this workshop to teach best practices for collecting data to estimate marine mammal abundance on oceanic surveys planned for the Pacific coast of South America. Marine mammal observers and other interested parties from Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia attended. Systematic marine mammal data collection is lacking in this region and the ultimate goal is to place marine mammal observers on regularly occurring oceanographic cruises conducted in the EEZs of these four countries.
International Workshop on Whale Entanglement Prevention
In May 2016, NMFS and New England Aquarium’s Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction convened an international workshop to consider fixed fishing gear and aquaculture. The workshop evaluated and provided recommendations on existing and potential efficacy of different prevention techniques to reduce large whale entanglement and identified research priorities for the development of promising solutions to entanglement prevention.
The U.S. has strong interest in the conservation of all cetaceans, especially those that are considered critically endangered by the IWC. In May 2016 NMFS’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center assisted Mexico in efforts to analyze data on the trends of the vaquita population in the northern Gulf of California collected using shipboard surveys and a passive acoustic monitoring array in the Upper Gulf of California. Following initial analyses, which showed evidence of a startling acceleration in the decline of the vaquita, a group of experts reviewed the findings of the monitoring program. The panel confirmed that the decline was real. Subsequently, the Seventh Meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) in May 2016, reported to Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment the findings of the surveys and provided recommendations for additional action.
For many years, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and the NMFS have provided support to Mexico for efforts to develop and deploy fishing gear that does not entangle the critically depleted vaquita, as an alternative to using gillnets. This support has been used to design and test alternative fishing gear as well as to promote market incentives for the sale and purchase of shrimp harvested with alternative, “vaquita-safe” fishing gear.
In July 2016, President Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto committed to intensify bilateral cooperation to protect the critically endangered vaquita, including through the following actions: (1) Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California; (2) Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders; (3) Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita- safe” fisheries; and (4) Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.
Western Gray Whales
Multiple NOAA scientists are currently serving on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP). This panel provides independent scientific and technical advice to decision makers in industry, government and civil society with respect to the potential effects of human activities, particularly oil and gas development activities, on the Western Gray Whale population. The panel also coordinates research to, among other objectives, minimize disturbance to Western Gray Whales and identify and mitigate potential risks associated with scientific research activities.
The United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding at IWC 65 with the Russian Federation and Japan to implement the IUCN’s range-wide Western Gray Whale Conservation Plan. The IUCN Western Gray Whale Conservation Plan was drafted in 2010 with the goal of ‘managing human activities that affect western Gray Whales and maximizing the population’s chances for recovery, based on the best scientific knowledge.’
North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with 451 individuals remaining at the end of 2016. Since 2017, there have been 18 right whale deaths, with the majority occurring in Canada (12 in Canada; six in the United States). The winter season is the species’ calving season, but no right whale calves were born in 2018 – causing additional concern for the future of the species. Their decline is primarily from entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. More specifically, whales become entangled in the ropes connecting lobster traps or crab pots to buoys at the surface of the water. Other stressors affect right whales, such underwater noise and changes in oceanographic conditions that affect prey distribution and availability.
Both the U.S. NOAA Fisheries and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), in partnership with other agencies, have taken a number of regulatory, research, and field-based actions to curtail entanglements and other anthropogenic impacts. These include implementing modifications to fishing gear, closing certain fishing areas to reduce entanglement risk, a disentanglement response network, conducting aerial surveys for both population monitoring and detection of entangled whales, and coordinating other working groups and response networks. For example, NOAA Fisheries coordinates a Large Whale Entanglement Response Network and a Take Reduction Team, the latter of which has recently been assessing the feasibility of emerging gear modifications, such as buoy-less gear, that could reduce right whale entanglements. Canada has specifically instituted a number of closures of certain fishing areas in 2018 for both snow crab and other species.
Southern Ocean Research Program (SORP)
The Southern Ocean Research Partnership (IWC-SORP) was proposed to the IWC in 2008 with the aim of developing a multi-lateral, non-lethal scientific research program that would improve the coordinated and cooperative delivery of science to the IWC. There are 11 member countries in the Partnership: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa and the United States. Field work has spanned McMurdo Sound, the western Antarctic Peninsula, Terra Nova Bay, Raoul Island, South Georgia and Marion Island and covered photographic identification, biopsy sampling, satellite tagging and acoustic recording. The United States strongly supports SORP and provides financial and staff support for research. More information can be found online at http://www.marinemammals.gov.au/sorp.
Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research (POWER) Program
Large whale IWC-POWER cruises were conducted in the North Pacific between 2016 and 2018. Following completion of the surveys in 2016, and including efforts from past years, nearly all of the North Pacific will have been surveyed. The Government of Japan has provided most of the resources to carry out these non-lethal surveys for cetaceans in the North Pacific. NOAA scientists have also participated in these cruises, facilitating the authorization and collection of biospsy samples from large whales throughout the survey area.
Since the 2016 IWC meeting, the U.S. has worked with international partners to reduce bycatch of marine mammals through gear modification and to support collaborative initiatives to better understand and mitigate serious injuries and mortalities of marine mammal.