Reflections on the 20th Biennial Meeting

The Society held its much awaited biennial conference on the theme of ‘Conservation of Marine Mammals: Science Making a Difference’ on the Otago University campus in Dunedin last week. The conference was a great success despite the unprecedented impact of multiple key threatening  processes: the Global Financial Crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes, the US government shutdown and the propeller falling off the ferry bringing the recycled paper for the program booklets from the North Island of New Zealand.

Congratulations to Liz Slooten, Steve Dawson and their team for their fantastic job in organizing such a wonderful conference and their assistance in raising almost $US200,000 in sponsorship. Special thanks are also due to  Kim Rhodes from Experient who adapted  her professional skills to help shape and deliver a conference in a very different setting from those in which she normally operates.

Today’s graduate students are the future of the Society, and they are the ones who will stand of the shoulders of the giants who founded it.  The Society and especially the local Organising Committee raised nearly $90,000 for student travel grants and 132 students were supported to attend the conference. An estimated 300 students participated in the student workshop which featured chapter presentations, a thought-provoking keynote address from Mark Orams and group discussions with professionals in different fields.

For the first time, the conference program included two panel sessions to discuss current important and sensitive issues facing marine mammalogists. Conference attendees voted with their feet by their excellent attendance at these panels indicating the deep interest in our Society becoming an engaged society – one that wants our science to make a difference.

The Society’s Ethics Committee convened a panel to discussing the Humane Killing of Marine Mammals. The purpose of the panel was not to attempt a consensus on the killing of marine mammals, but to educate members regarding  current scientific perspectives on these complex technical, ethical and cultural issues.  Former New Zealand Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, moderated the panel, comprised of four member with expertise in marine mammal science or animal welfare issues.  The panel speakers were: Nick Gales (Australian Antarctic Division), Diana Reiss (Hunter College, CUNY), Paul Jepson (Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London) and James Kirkwood (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare).

The second panel discussed the Scientific Studies of Captive and Free-Living Killer Whales. The goals of this panel discussion were to: 1) provide an overview of scientific data collected from free-ranging and captive killer whales; and 2) offer an opportunity for experts to discuss comparative aspects of killer whale biology in these two environments and the implications thereof.  The Chair of the Society’s Committee of Scientific Advisors, Doug Wartzok, moderated the panel. Doug DeMaster (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, USA), a member of the panel, presented a short background paper comparing life history and other parameters between free-ranging and captive killer whales.  Other members of the panel were Robin Baird (Cascadia Research), David Duffus (University of Victoria, British Columbia), Mark Orams (Auckland University of Technology), Naomi Rose (Animal Welfare Institute, USA), and Judy St. Leger (Sea World Parks and Entertainment).

The topics discussed by both panels were submitted by members of the society prior to the meeting and posted on the conference wiki. The sessions were recorded and will be made available to members on the Society’s website.

As planned, the panel discussions generated controversy (and controversy inevitably generates rumor). I assure you that the Board was not offered and did not receive money to promote or cancel either panel. The travel costs of some panel members were externally sponsored. The Board has learned lessons from the Dunedin panel discussions and is developing protocols for panel discussions at future conferences in anticipation of lively discussions in San Francisco.

I am pleased that that the Society used our collective knowledge of conservation biology and animal welfare science to inform members about these sensitive issues.  I regard it as very important that the Society continues to advance the scientific aspects of such discussions and the Ethics Committee will be forming a Welfare Science Sub-Committee to advance the issues raised by the Humane Killing Panel.

The issues faced by marine mammals are serious and growing.  We learned a great deal in Dunedin about the conservation challenges to marine mammals. Much of it was not good news, especially for coastal and riverine species.  We must engage with other specialists to address the root causes of these problems which are largely the human issues of poverty, governance and political will.  We must also face tough ethical issues if our science is to make a difference.

I hope that some of you will feel inspired by the Dunedin meeting to serve your Society by standing for the Board or agreeing to serve on one of its committees or sub-committees. We look forward to receiving additional nominations for the elected officer position that are up for election in 2014. If you are interested in standing for election please contact Ailsa Hall (ajh7@st-andrews.ac.uk) and if you are interested in being a committee chair or member please contact the President-Elect Nick Gales (nick.gales@aad.gov.au) indicating how you can contribute.

I look forward to seeing you all in San Francisco in 2015.

Helene Marsh,

President (until June 30 2014)