The study and protection of whales: a colossal challenge (3/3)
Camille Rondeau Saint-Jean
We saw in the last post that biologists need to be more creative in tracking and understanding whales, and that the unique characteristics of these social, sensitive, and intelligent animals make them vulnerable to habitat disturbance. But what are the specific issues involved in cetacean conservation?
On an individual scale, even when we would like to deploy exceptional means in emergency situations, it is extremely difficult to rescue a large cetacean. Anesthesia is very risky because marine mammals breathe air like us and can drown if they lose consciousness in the water. Rescuing a whale entangled in fishing gear is a dangerous undertaking that should be left to experts, as the animal may panic and attempt to defend itself. There are thus few options for helping stranded whales or those that get lost, such as the three whales that have unfortunately been observed around Montreal in recent years. This difficulty in handling individuals also complicates conservation efforts for some critically endangered populations such as the now extinct Baiji dolphins, or the Pacific porpoises(vaquitas), which are also on the verge of extinction. These small cetaceans that could technically have been transported out of a dangerous environment and attempted to breed in captivity react very poorly to the stress of handling and transport, which has made interventions impossible.
To ensure the protection of cetaceans, it is necessary to undertake conservation actions out of the ordinary, on a very large spatial and temporal scale. The challenges faced when studying whales, their vulnerability, and the multitude of threats they face can sometimes seem insurmountable. However, every action taken to protect them will have a major impact on a multitude of other species and on ecological cycles on a global scale, including carbon sequestration.
Indeed, reducing plastic, chemical and noise pollution, calming maritime traffic and limiting climate change protects not only whales, but also entire ecosystems and lesser known and less charismatic species. Thus, whales are not only sentinel species, whose health reflects that of their environment, but also umbrella species, whose charisma encourages the protection of their habitat and other life forms that depend on it. We must have the courage to act for the conservation of marine mammals, because cumulative actions in this direction will be invaluable in the long term for the vitality of the oceans as a whole.
Whale conservation is not a one-time action and can never be considered a done deal: it is an ongoing battle that must be constantly re-evaluated, updated and implemented year after year. The success of the 30x30 initiative, joined by 72 countries to designate 30% of the world's oceans as marine protected areas by 2030, would be a huge step forward in this direction. But monitoring and controlling marine activities over such vast territories is a challenge that will require exceptional means.
As seen in the case of recent developments in renewable energy, new technologies can be a beneficial tool for conservation. Whale Seeker's mission is to widen the bottleneck of aerial and satellite photo analysis for the long-term monitoring of whales over vast territories. The goal is to be able to measure, track and quantify whale populations quickly and continuously, which will facilitate monitoring and enforcement in marine protected areas, and informed decision-making by all stakeholders in the marine industries. In this way, we hope to be agents of positive change in the global challenge of conserving all ocean life forms, from the smallest to the largest.