Wildlife & Biodiversity

How and why we should support marine mammal science in India

Conservation of marine mammals requires a strong scientific foundation

By Mridula Srinivasan
Last Updated: Wednesday 21 October 2015

A dugong grazing in a sea grass meadow of the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Credit: Ruth Hartnup, Flickr

In 1997, I presented a talk on “Communication in Whales and Dolphins”, at an inter-collegiate science competition organised by the Department of Physics, University of Delhi. I was speaking to a graduate student audience with backgrounds in the physical and mathematical sciences. The judges also had similar backgrounds. At the end of my talk and customary round of questions, a clearly disinterested judge asked me—‘Why does this even matter?’, ‘Who cares about dolphins and whales in India?’

All I could muster was a defiant response—‘I care’. Despite the sinking feeling after my talk, I must have done something right as I was awarded the Third Prize for my talk.

Looking back, I realise that I gave a passionate and emotional response. The judge had asked a legitimate question, and I had failed to provide a proper and lucid answer. After earning a doctorate studying dolphins, and being involved in several projects in marine science and marine mammal conservation for a decade or more, this remains a challenging question for me and most professionals in my field. This is because there are no simple answers, and the answers usually vary depending on the audience. Fortunately, there are some inescapable facts, which I will describe below to help answer this important question.

But first, some context.

Whales and dolphins are charismatic animals that have captured the hearts and minds of people globally. Young or old, people are thrilled to see them in the wild and at amusement parks. Equally, people are distressed when whales and dolphins show up on the beaches, helpless, dying or dead. There is an emotional connection between us and these magnificent animals. Unfortunately, those twinges of the heart alone cannot solve today’s complex conservation threats that these animals face.

In the last few years, there have been frequent reports of dolphin, whale, and dugong strandings along India’s beaches. Most which wash up on the beach are dead. Others strand live and are returned to sea by concerned fishermen, volunteers, or officials. Most dead animals are buried or destroyed quickly. And what about the prognosis for live animals? We do not know. Some may re-strand, die at sea, or miraculously survive.

Marine mammal strandings are not uncommon along India’s coasts. They have happened historically, but are not a regular occurrence. Today, with increased media reporting, social media, and ‘aware’ biologists, word spreads fast. It is also possible that the frequency of these strandings is increasing but without systematic analysis, this is conjecture at this point.

At the core, regardless of where an animal strands, there is an inherent desire to “save” these animals. The notion is that they are somehow like “us”, and need to be saved or disposed of quickly. But should that be the only objective? Are these rescue attempts truly saving or protecting a population of animals that are strictly protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act? There are many important questions that remain unanswered in the zealousness of returning or burying an animal too hastily.

With exceptions, I believe that we are missing out on collecting key scientific data from stranded animals. This includes our ability to identify the species of stranded whale or dolphin (with certainty) by collecting tissue samples for genetic analysis, determine if it is a recurrent or new stranding, understanding the frequency of strandings by region and between years, and conducting comprehensive diagnostics to know why an animal stranded or at least, recognise signs of human interaction. Stranding data collected is only one-half of the marine mammal life history puzzle. To have a thorough understanding, we need to know what is happening at sea. Thus, we need accurate and precise estimates of the number of marine mammals, where they are, what they eat, and importantly what factors threaten population viability.

We are however, still faced with the proverbial question, why should we care? To do that, we need to get back to basics.

Marine mammals represent a diverse group of dolphins, whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, sea otters, polar bears, dugongs, and manatees. Off India, we can find mostly dolphins, including the very unique, Ganges river dolphin (India’s National Aquatic Animal), whales, porpoises, and dugongs.

Not all marine mammals are marine and not all spend their lives entirely in water. Importantly, marine mammals are NOT fish! They are mammals. So, like humans, they tolerate broad temperature changes (warm-blooded), give birth, suckle their young, and provide parental care to varying degrees. And some, like dolphins, have complex social lives, marked by social cohesion and strong familial bonds. While they may appear to be like “us”, they are clearly adapted to a life at sea or aquatic systems.

All marine mammals have descended from terrestrial ancestors and are closely related to land mammals, such as hyraxes, hippos, and elephants. They are unique evolutionary examples of species that transitioned from a life on land to a life at sea. Over 50 million years of evolution has helped them perfect the art of surviving and reproducing in an unfriendly system, where sound is the principal mode of communication and food is unevenly distributed. As master consumers of ocean biomass, they can regulate ecosystem dynamics within the ocean.

Marine mammals are in a simplistic sense, ocean thermometers. When they frequently strand, the temperature reading of the ocean health is clearly off. The reasons are plenty and range from human-caused disturbance to bio-toxins. Depending on the nature of the disturbance, species involved, and individual body condition, they may show up on our beaches in distress or dead. Frequently, many unhealthy or wounded individuals may simply sink at sea and leave no trace.

Marine mammal science has a short history. Only recently, with advances in acoustic technology, ship-based surveys, satellite tracking, genetics, veterinary diagnostics, and not to mention years of observations by dedicated scientists, we have accumulated enough information to piece together many aspects of marine mammal life history.

We have learnt that marine mammals are the kings of the sea, similar to how tigers and lions reign over terrestrial ecosystems. We know that the marine mammal kingdom is vast and empty (for the mostpart) and at the mercy of ocean-atmospheric dynamics. Also, marine mammal prey are masters in their own right, testing the physicality and mental prowess of their predators. Marine mammals have to work hard to find food, mates, survive and reproduce. They are slow to mature, produce one or two calves every 1 to 3 years or longer, depending on the species and body condition, and live long lives. Their sensory capabilities, anatomy, physiology, and behavioural plasticity have helped them adapt to different oceans of the world and smaller water bodies with incredible success.

The only predator that wields more power at sea, are humans. Just like we have unsustainably exploited land resources, fragmented elephant, rhino, and tiger habitats, we have ventured into the sea to do the same. Commercial fisheries have expanded off India’s coasts, overfishing and non-target catches, indiscriminate coastal, naval and offshore development, are now the norm.

The value of the oceans is evident in the fact that nearly 90 per cent of all trade travels by ocean. These activities, while economically profitable, can be disastrous for the marine ecosystem. But it is not a question of either/or. There is a place for development and sustainable resource exploitation so that all users can enjoy the beauty and benefits of the ocean. Science-based conservation and integration of socio-economic concerns have led to many conservation success stories.

Whales were hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s, but thanks to public support, activism, and intense and long-term conservation efforts, many whale populations are rebounding and reclaiming their historic range. Seal and sea lion population are also increasing in many parts of the world. Commercial whaling may have ended but there are other threats.

In my opinion, there are three obvious and immediate threats facing marine mammals globally.

The first and biggest threat is incidental capture in fisheries gear, both small-scale and industrial. The number of animals estimated to be incidentally captured in commercial fisheries through largely simple calculations in the Indian Ocean is staggering and alarming, actual numbers killed could be much higher globally. The problem is worsened by the fact that bycatch (incidental capture of non-target species during fishing) in artisanal (non-mechanised, small-scale fisheries) and subsistence fisheries are not intensively monitored. Bycatch of marine mammals, turtles, and sharks is the single greatest conservation threat. Millions of animals are killed in fisheries gear or face a slow death due to entanglement with fisheries gear.

Unfortunately, since most of these incidental catches go unreported or are unobserved, the true global scale of bycatch is an unknown. The bycatch impact however, does manifest itself in other ways such as through strandings or ecosystem change.

Second, increasing ocean trade translates into increasing sea traffic, which can result in increased risk of ship and boat strikes. This can be fatal to whales and many stranded whales leave tell-tale signs of vessel strikes. Dugongs and dolphins are equally at risk from unregulated tour boats, recreational and motorized fishing boats.

Third, ocean noise, primarily from coastal and offshore development projects can lead to both behavioural change and hearing injury in sensitive marine mammals. Marine mammals use sound to communicate, find food, and avoid predators, so prolonged exposure to noise within their hearing thresholds can potentially lead to population-level consequences, especially if noise levels are high in critical habitats where animals give birth or feed.

These threats are not exclusive to waters outside India. Bycatch, coastal development, and ship strikes are very real threats affecting marine mammals in Indian waters.

All is not bleak for India. Lessons learned from other countries can help India sustainably exploit oceanic resources and afford protection to these apex predators of the marine ecosystem. It is crucial that India does not repeat the mistakes of other nations. India has always championed community-invested conservation practice—this is vital but needs to be integrated with good science.

To truly protect whales as the law fully intended and manage resources, India needs to accomplish two long-term goals:

1) Conservation action including stranding response has to be based on science. Blind protection does not equate to conservation. Leaving an animal alone does not protect it from the plethora of human activities that create perturbations in the system. Unregulated human activities can lead to localised depletion even before we learn anything about the species. But we cannot mitigate what we do not understand. Knowing the animal is as important as understanding how humans can impact their populations. Cultivating the science to better understand the 25 odd species of marine mammals within the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)FORM?)is an ambitious but necessary conservation goal.

So, it is important for government to invest in long-term research of marine mammals. Importantly, government wildlife agencies, such as the Forest Department, need to recruit wildlife biologists, and foster research collaboration with academia, NGOs and international entities. Of primary importance is to survey the coastal and offshore waters for cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) occurrence and seasonal distribution and ultimately, estimate abundance. These studies need to be conducted with the help of expert marine mammal observers and be rigorous in survey design. Broad-scale surveys need to be complemented with targeted, near-shore, small-boat surveys and acoustic monitoring for understanding occurrence, habitat use, and seasonal patterns. Knowing where animals are and why they are there, can inform management decision-making to reduce impacts on marine mammal populations from human activities.

2) Stranding response is probably the easiest way to know about whales and dolphins off India’s shores. But staging a response does not imply simply pushing a stressed and frightened animal back to sea or burying it without trying to save its skeleton, collecting biological information, or doing a post-mortem or necropsy to document injuries and general condition and potentially, ascertain cause of death. India needs functional and sustainable regional stranding networks coordinated at the national level. The nationally-coordinated effort should establish the structure and framework for the regional networks, set up best practices for rescue, response, and data collection, as well as identify research labs and veterinary resources for sample storage and processing. Establishing a national stranding database and transparent data sharing practices is paramount to any national initiative.

Response efforts need to be conducted by trained personnel and need to be authorised. However, authorisations should ideally be issued to academic or non-profit institutions, to enable multiple trained individuals and volunteers to assist with efforts rather than one or two individuals who cannot be everywhere at all times. Bureaucratic issues related to permitting, needs to be resolved and it is important to strive for regional consistency in implementing policy and procedures. Instrumental to any stranding network are volunteers. A volunteer stranding response network is an excellent opportunity for the public to contribute and feel invested in the conservation of marine mammals in India.

Marine mammals are an evolutionary masterpiece and sentinels of the marine ecosystem. However, I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge the emotional connection—the need to protect and preserve their populations—as my biggest motivation to study them. However, as a scientist, I am also driven by an unwavering curiosity to unravel their lives and understand their role in the marine environment. These are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately, for conservation to succeed, it has to be rooted in sound science

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