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Society for Marine Mammalogy

Home News President's Blog Reflections on the Tampa Biennial Conference
President's Blog

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 16:13

Reflections on the Tampa Biennial Conference

Written by Randall Wells

As evidenced by our current Society membership of 1,977 and the recent turnout of 1,989 attendees for the 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Tampa, marine mammals and the issues surrounding them are of increasing interest and relevance.

The interest derives from the nature of the animals themselves and the fascinating scientific questions they stimulate, their high value to peoples all over the world and the high profile and emerging issues that impact these animals and ourselves.

While the biennial conference is perhaps the most visible aspect of the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s activities, the Society is much more than this conference - there is much the Board and committees do between conferences, and the Society has much to offer members outside of the conferences.  I would like to take this opportunity to summarize some of the highlights of what the Board and Committees have accomplished on your behalf since the 2009 biennial.  

To begin, I would like to thank the members of the Board of Governors for their unstinting efforts to make the Society for Marine Mammalogy the premier association of marine mammal professionals in the world.   President-elect Helene Marsh’s insightful focus and can-do attitude have helped to keep SMM on track, and helped to see us through the challenges of a venue switch for the New Zealand conference.  SMM will be in very capable hands when Helene’s term as President begins in July 2012.  Jim Harvey and Heather Koopman have been essential components to the continuity and smooth running of our operations.  Members at Large Emer Rogan and Simon Goldsworthy have provided valuable input in all manner of discussions, and Student Member at Large Inez Campbell has done much to motivate and engage the student component of the Society.  

Over the past several years we have been striving to increase the visibility and accessibility of the Society.  It seems that “Science” is experiencing a diminishing presence in the world’s day-to-day activities and decisions, and even in the education of our next generations, at a time when scientific input is desperately needed. Without compromising the rigor or quality of our science, we have been striving to make the work and efforts of the Society’s members better known to the scientific community and the general public.  Our website has become an outstanding tool for information dissemination.  Through the efforts of our amazing webmaster, Michel Fougeres and our Student Member at Large, Inez Campbell, we have a new and strong presence in social media.  Thanks to Lars Bejder’s Education Committee and the efforts of many members, we are able to provide much-needed, up-to-date species accounts on our website.  Through our website, Bill Perrin’s ad hoc Taxonomy Committee provides the latest word on the status of marine mammal taxonomy.  Through the recommendation of our journal editor Daryl Boness, we have begun to publish some of our journal articles electronically in “hybrid” journal issues, decreasing the time to publication and increasing the quantity of high quality information we can disseminate, at no additional cost to the Society.  At the 2011 biennial we experimented, quite successfully, with increased media presence, social media, and speed talks to interface with the media and the public to make them aware of the issues, important findings, and the credible information resources available through the Society for Marine Mammalogy.  

We also succeeded in making the conference and membership in the Society more accessible and affordable.  About a third of you have taken advantage of the new 2-year membership option, according to Membership Chair Doug Nowacek.  Conference co-organizers Laura Engleby and Vicki Cornish went to great lengths to keep the registration costs for the conference down, believing that the risk of not meeting revenue projections was worth the benefit of facilitating attendance by as many members and other interested participants as possible – and it worked. 

The 19th biennial broke SMM biennial attendance records, broke even financially.

We considered it to be especially important to engage the next generation of marine mammal scientists and scientists from low-income countries, and facilitate their participation.  They represent the future of the Society, and they are the ones who will leverage the work of those who came before them. 

Through the generosity of a number of corporate, non-profit, and government sponsors, we have been able to raise more than $150,000 and award travel grants to two and a half times the usual number of students this year.

We made a total of 260 student travel grants, either as a money voucher or as a stay at the Conference hotel throughout the conference.  Building on the great success of “Seal Clubbing” in Quebec as a fund-raiser for student travel, Charles Littnan and Ari Friedlaender organized a second student travel fund-raising event - “Manatee Mayhem” - and raised more than $14,000 toward student travel for the 2013 biennial in New Zealand.

In addition, Bill Perrin’s International Relations Committee selected 7 principal investigators from low income countries selected for travel support to the conference, from a field of 23 applicants.  Overall, the number of full members from developing countries has nearly doubled since 2009, making our Society truly international.

There have been many other accomplishments by your Board of Governors and Committee Chairs.  In recognition of the importance of students to the Society, Awards Committee Chair Nick Lunn is reviewing and developing a business plan for the Society awards moving forward.  Nominations and Elections Committee Chair Ailsa Hall unveiled her committee’s slate of candidates and issues for the 2012 ballot.

Our journal, Marine Mammal Science, implemented a virtual issue on methods.  There is currently a discussion about transitioning to a fully electronic journal – you will be able to vote for your choice on the 2012 ballot.

Improvements to the SMM website include: 1) the Grants in Aid of Research application and review process are now part of core SMM website; 2) E-commerce for conferences was improved for Tampa (and future conference) -- attendees can now pay for conference registration and any extras (banquet tickets, etc) in one transaction, rather than as separate transactions; and 3) there has been increased use of the Message Board by student members for ride/room sharing.  

Michel has worked to better integrate social media.  Visitors can now click a button at the top of any news item to share it via their own Facebook or Twitter accounts, helping to increase the visibility of SMM virally.  Visitors can now "Like" SMM on Facebook by clicking the Facebook icon at the top of any page.

The Society has ~900 fans on Facebook, including another ~600 in the Student Facebook group.

Taking advantage of the new web-based review capabilities, Doug Wartzok’s Committee of Scientific Advisors processed 36 applications from 10 countries and awarded grants of $1,000 to $1,500 to 13 of these applicants.  They also more clearly defined grant eligibility by reference to the designation of low income countries as identified by the International Monetary Fund.

Bill Perrin’s ad hoc Taxonomy Committee updated its very useful web-based list of Species and Subspecies as of this month, with revision of the otariid pinnipeds.  A further update will be needed in 2012, to address the putative new species of that most noble of genera, Tursiops and classification of the river dolphins of the genus Inia.  We will be asking you to vote to establish this important committee as a SMM “standing committee.”

Since the last conference, you voted to establish a Conservation Committee to advise the Board of Governors on matters related to the conservation and management of marine mammals and provide the Board of Governors with information that may be requested from time to time. The Conservation Committee also develops Presidential Letters as a mechanism to provide timely comment on the evidence base for issues related to the conservation and management of marine mammals where the majority of the Society's membership likely would hold the same opinion.  Barb Taylor’s Conservation Committee has developed two letters to date. Other letters, including one on conservation impacts of Japanese drive and harpoon fisheries, are currently being developed.  In October 2010, a letter was sent to the government of India regarding potential impacts of five large dams on the endangered Gangetic dolphins in the Brahmaputra River Basin.   In February 2011, a letter was sent to the government of Taiwan regarding the plight of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins of the Eastern Taiwan Strait, where a small population faced threats from extensive coastal development.  Our understanding is that the development project is being reconsidered.

Marine mammal scientists face many challenges in field and laboratory research, not the least of which are ethical questions.  Mild-mannered Ethics-Committee-Chair-by-day and Wild-Party-Animal-by-night, Charles Littnan, has led his committee through a number of efforts since the 2009 conference.  The Ethics Committee has completed a draft Professional Code of Ethics to complement the Society’s Best Practice Guidelines.  The code has been posted on the SMM website, and it will be explained at the member’s meeting and open comment period would begin after conference, with a vote on accepting the code on the 2012 ballot.  The issue of humane killing of marine mammals, particularly cetaceans, for research or consumption continues to be a topic of concern within the SMM and broader marine mammal field.   Members of the EC, in consultation with the Board, are developing plans for a SMM-sponsored workshop on this topic before the next conference.   There will likely be a special session at the New Zealand conference related to this issue.

Today, the issues facing the researchers, and the animals, are not simple.  It is no longer adequate in many cases, to consider only single factors acting alone as they impact these animals.

As human activities in marine and aquatic environments continue to increase worldwide, the combined and cumulative effects of these activities are posing increasing threats to marine mammals as individuals, populations, and species.  The dolphins, manatees, and right whales forming the logo for the 2011 biennial conference exemplify the situation, but it is repeated with species after species around the world.  

Off the east coast of Florida, highly endangered northern right whales have to contend with ship traffic and fishing gear.  In the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere in Florida, endangered manatees face threats from boat traffic, fishing gear, harassment, and the potential loss of warm-water refugia and other habitats.  Just outside this conference hall and throughout the southeastern United States, bottlenose dolphins are exposed to threats from entanglement in, and ingestion of fishing gear, vessel traffic, pollution, habitat loss, and harmful human interactions.  In addition, all of these animals have the potential to be impacted by larger scale threats, from harmful algal blooms, climate change, or as those of us along the Gulf off Mexico coast witnessed so dramatically last year, oil spills.  Recognition of these complexities, and a desire to increase awareness of what the animals are facing, led to establishing the theme of my presidency, and subsequently, the theme of the 19th biennial conference, as: “Cumulative effects of threats to marine mammals.”  

The issues faced by marine mammals are serious and growing more so all the time.  We heard a great deal over the course of the biennial conference about cumulative impacts on the animals for which we care so deeply.  We learned about threats to the animals and obstacles to their conservation.  We also learned about some of the approaches that are making positive differences for the animals, and through the biennial meeting we were able to share these approaches and hopefully increase their application around the world.  We should be encouraged by the number of young scientists who demonstrated their dedication to the field and the issues by attending the conference - they have the interest, energy, enthusiasm, and technical skills to make these positive changes happen.  And we should be inspired to new and continuing action by the efforts of those among our Society’s ranks who have already made a huge difference for the marine mammals of the world, such as the 2011 winner of the Kenneth S. Norris Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. William F. Perrin.  

The meaning of the term “Society” is never more evident than when you have the opportunity to witness the interactions between those who helped to create the Society for Marine Mammalogy, and indeed were responsible for much of the early development of the field of marine mammal science, and the young scientists who will carry it forward into the future. 

The success of the 19th Biennial Conference can be measured in attendance numbers, but more importantly, it should be measured in terms of the shared knowledge and inspiration that comes from the kinds of interactions facilitated by such a conference.   

See you in New Zealand!


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