Day 1 of the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Halifax. Already, our heads are filled with new ideas, researchers to follow, new questions to explore. Report of a vibrant Monday.

The morning began with a moving plea for conservation. In the arena of the Scotiabank Centre, nearly one thousand people gathered to listen to the opening speech, followed by two plenary sessions on conservation issues.

Asha de Vos at a TED Talk on the importance of whale excrement in the ecosystem. You can also listen to it online. © TED Talk

Asha de Vos of Oceanswell and Scott Krauss of the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium are studying endangered species, one being the blue whale in the Indian Ocean and the other, the North Atlantic right whale. One of the main threats hampering the recovery of the blue whales and right whales they are studying are collisions with ships. The two researchers agree that although science is essential to conservation, it will be useless if the dissemination of research is not maximized. They challenged scientists to share with the public, each in their own way, their discovery and passion for saving whales.

The sessions then succeeded one after the other. Simultaneously, four presentation sessions of less than 15 minutes each (including the question-and-answer period) were held on the themes of “acoustics and communication”, “conservation”, “habitat and distribution” and “food ecology”. The same principle was duplicated in the late afternoon, this time divided into the themes of “biology and abundance”, “conservation”, “phylogeny, systematics and genetics” and “behavioural ecology”.

The presentations on acoustics and communication included discussion of marine mammal disturbance by sonar, seismic surveys and echo sounders. And the answers are far from being answered. Methodologies, the instruments used and the geographical region all have an influence on the results. However, to learn more, we will be following research being conducted by Danielle Cholewiak and her NOAA team on the influence of vessel echo sounders on beaked whales.

Three harp seals sunbathing, one of them showing is belly
Three harp seals © Renaud Pintiaux

Speaking of broadening one’s horizons, a talk on harp seals spawns ideas for transferring the research to cetaceans. The presentation “Do changes in condition reflect reproductive rates in Northwest Atlantic harp seals?” by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Garry Stenson reported a decrease in harp seal births, but not pregnancy rates. The difficulty in terminating pregnancies is believed to be related to the physical condition of the females. When species such as the St. Lawrence beluga are found to have perinatal mortality, a similar study can be modelled on what has been learned in pinnipeds.

And some researchers will delve into the less appealing aspects of marine mammals. Stephen Trumble of Baylor University and his team presented their study of baleen whale earwax to quantify their stress throughout the ages with the presentation “Earplugs reveal a century of stress in baleen whales and the impact of industrial whaling”. A strong correlation was demonstrated with the whaling period and that of World War II, one being characterized by signs of stress, the other representing a remarkable lull.

In the deafening noise of the posters room, researchers and student-researchers share with their peers their discoveries, methodologies, and results and can compare their own projects with those of other scientists from around the globe. A great opportunity to expand one’s horizons.

The day ended with a panel highlighting once again the importance of bringing research to the attention of the general public.

To read the abstracts of the papers, you can visit the program online.

-Text written with the collaboration of the GREMM team.

News - 23/10/2017

Marie-Ève Muller

Marie-Ève Muller is responsible for GREMM's communications and spokeperson for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergencies Response Network (QMMERN). As Editor-in-Chief for Whales Online, she devours research and has an insatiable thirst for the stories of scientists and observers. Drawing from her background in literature and journalism, Marie-Ève strives to put the fragile reality of cetaceans into words and images.

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