The Devil We Don’t Know

Dear readers, I am pleased to announce the publication of the followingpaper in the PLoS ONE journal. The full paper as well as supplementary material can be downloaded from the journal  webpage.

Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Lauriano, G., Pierantonio, N., Cañadas, A., Donovan, G., Panigada, S., 2015. The Devil We Don’t Know: Investigating Habitat and Abundance of Endangered Giant Devil Rays in the North-Western Mediterranean Sea. PLoS ONE 10, e0141189. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0141189
PLoS ONE Mm2015

Whatever our emotions tell us, not all whaling is the same

The Conversation

David Lusseau is Reader at University of Aberdeen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

David Lusseau, University of Aberdeen

In the mid-20th century pilot whaling still took place in many north Atlantic nations such as the US and Canada. Now, only the Faraoese have a dedicated pilot whale hunt, the grindadráp. Many of us don’t like the idea of this.

I am a scientist. I do not profit from the pilot whale hunt nor do I have anything to gain by writing this article. Indeed, I risk retaliation from those that feel what I say departs from the accepted mantra.

I study and work with dolphins and whales and for a while I spent more time around dolphins than people. For no logical reason, these animals are special to me, and that they are hunted upsets me. But these are personal opinions which have no place in this debate – a debate that is too easily ruled by emotions.

No conservation threat

The Faroese catch around 900 pilot whales, actually a type of dolphin, every year. This catch level does not threaten the conservation status of this population estimated to have more than 750,000 whales. Often forgotten or ignored is that an estimated several hundred pilot whales from the same populations are drowned every year in the nets of our fishing fleets.

The scale of the Faroese pilot whale hunt is very different to the industrial whaling led by the UK and Norway during the 19th and 20th centuries which, in only 50 to 70 years, over-exploited whales in the Antarctic Ocean and drove them almost to extinction. Nor is it comparable to the commercial pilot whaling in Newfoundland from the 1950s and 1960s which over-exploited the stock. In comparison, the Faroese pilot whale hunt has continued for close to 1,000 years without over-exploitation, with records going back to 1584.

Since pilot whales are top predators in the north Atlantic, they accumulate levels of heavy metals and other pollutants that make their meat hazardous to eat. Yet the hunt is part of the social fabric of the islands, and the meat is eaten nevertheless.

The whale hunt – the Grindadrap – has been going on for centuries.
British Maria Expedition

No good way of killing

The Faroese pilot whale hunt is a dramatic sight. The animals are driven close to the shore in shallow bays and slaughtered with knives and lances. It results in a lot of blood in the water, clearly visible from the shore where many often gather to watch.

The need for animals that we eat to be killed quickly and humanely is well understood and agreed. The pilot whale killing method was chosen to ensure that the whales die as quickly as possible, considering all the factors in the hunt.

Killing an animal is not a pleasant business, be it a whale, a deer, or a chicken. However, all welfare issues considered, I do not see how the pilot whale hunt is different from non-stalking hunts for animals on land, many of which take place in countries where opponents to the whale hunt live. Time-to-death is kept as short as possible, even if sometimes it’s longer than we would like. One thing is certain: it’s much shorter than the time it takes a pilot whale to drown in a fishing net that we use to catch our daily fish.

The hunt itself is a different story. We have very recently stopped hunting foxes with dogs in the UK on welfare grounds. Driving pilot whales into bays to kill them takes time and is not unlike the process of hunting with dogs, and I think it raises welfare questions that need to be discussed.

I personally have difficulties weighing these welfare questions against those raised by the industrial farming which generates most of the meat we consume in anti-whaling nations. Anyone that signs a petition to stop this hunt only to go home and roast a chicken that never saw daylight or moved much when it was reared is a hypocrite. Would it be more ethical of the Faroese to replace the wild-caught meat they have available to them with imported, industrially produced meat?

Is this more or less humane than hunting wild animals?
Erik S. Lesser/EPA

Not all whaling is the same

Many of the arguments against the Faroese subsistence whaling should equally apply to the subsistence whaling that goes on in other countries, such as among the Inuit and Eskimo of the US and Canada and the Siberian peoples in Russia. One argument against subsistence hunting is that as the world develops, access to other food sources increases. But alternative food sources are as prevalent in these other countries as they are in the Faroe Islands. Yet the Intuit and Eskimo for example are not subject to the same criticism, and are even lauded for protecting their cultural traditions – are Faroese traditions somehow less worthy of protection?

We need an unemotional public debate about all forms of whaling, and a commonly agreed definition of subsistence whaling, dietary or cultural, that is more tightly defined and less open to interpretation. The debate is too driven by emotions, with too many groups that stand to gain while whaling remains a Punch and Judy show. As Gandhi said: “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.”

We must never again allow whaling on an industrial scale. But I enjoy my venison and I have no problem with deer hunts. I am one of the millions of hypocrites that eat meat but cannot bear the idea of killing an animal myself. I eat tuna despite its health risks – if I was born in the Faroe Islands, wouldn’t I equally enjoy my pilot whale?

Fin whales migration in the Mediterranean Sea

(From the International Whaling Commission website)

A collaborative satellite tagging programme under the auspices of the IWC has shed light on the migration patterns of Mediterranean fin whales.  This latest research develops understanding of the routes travelled by the whales, and therefore the threats they face.

The project began in 2013, but the first tagging attempts were unsuccessful due to an unfortunate combination of harsh weather conditions, erratic whale presence and tag failure.  In March, scientists successfully tagged two whales in waters around the island of Lampedusa, between Sicily and the North African coast.

After several weeks feeding in this area the whales separated, but both ultimately travelled across the Strait of Sicily towards the Pelagos Sanctuary in the northern Mediterranean.  This journey gives the first clear indication that the whales feeding in the Strait of Sicily in winter are the same animals that congregate in the Pelagos Sanctuary in summer.  This research also confirms that fin whales migrate north-south across one of the busiest east-west shipping lanes in the world.

The number of collisions between whales and ships, known as ‘ship strikes,’ is hard to quantify.  Collisions with large ships often go unnoticed or unreported.  The IWC has developed a global ship strike database and is gathering information to build a clearer picture of the problem, in order to develop solutions.

What is already clear is that ship strikes are more likely in areas where whale migration routes and shipping lanes cross.  More work is needed to understand and address the threat to whales when they leave the safety of the Pelagos Sanctuary.  Further work will also be undertaken to establish if there is any relationship between these whales and other known congregations in the eastern Mediterranean.

This programme is a multi-agency collaboration, funded by the Italian Ministry of the Environment, through the IWC and the Tethys Research Institute.  The research is conducted in conjunction with the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Siena, and the Pelagie Islands Marine Protected Area.

You can read more about the project on the website of the Tethys Research Institute as well as the website of the Pelagos Sanctuary.

See also

Giuseppe Notarbarolo di Sciara awarded with the Mandy McMath Conservation Award

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, the founder and current president of the Tethys Research Institute (among the other things) has beeen recently awarded with the Mandy McMath Conservation Award at the lates Annual Conference of the European Cetacean Society Conference in Malta. Read the speech by Mark Simmonds here.

Tethys contributions to the latest ECS annual conference in Malta

The latest 29th Annual Conference of the European Cetacean Society was held in Malta just a few days ago, between the 23rd and the 25th of march, and organised by the The Biological Conservation Research Foundation, BICREF, in collaboration with the The Conservation Biology Research Group Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, The University of Malta. Amongst the several contributions, the Tethys Research Institute was in Malta with two full talks, 2 posters and 1 envited talk. Here it follows the list of the contributions:


Oral presentations

Long-term trend analysis of deep diving cetacean species occurring in the Pelagos Sanctuary (Northwestern Mediterranean Sea).

Lanfredi, C., Airoldi, S., Moulins,  A., Rosso, M., Tepsich, P., Azzellino, A.

Several threats are known to affect cetacean species and their habitats in the Mediterranean sea, most of them being related to human activities. To enforce effective mitigation actions, extensive knowledge of cetacean ecology is required. In this study a 23-year sighting series (1990-2012) of sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) and Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) was analysed to assess temporal patterns or trends in their presence in the Pelagos Sanctuary area. Sighting data were collected by Tethys Research Institute (n= 434) and CIMA research Foundation (n= 142) during shipboard surveys conducted between 1990-2012 and 2004-2012, respectively. This effort yielded a total of 576 sightings: 289 sperm whales, 164 Risso’s dolphins and 123 Cuvier’s beaked whales. For the purpose of the analysis a grid of 6.8 x 9.3 km cell units was created and used for the spatial analysis. The species’ encounter rate variability in time was analysed through a General Linear Model approach, which revealed the existence of a significant increasing trend (P<0.05) for sperm whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales presence in the area. Contrarily, no trend was found for Risso’s dolphin. This study provides evidence that the animal distribution in the Pelagos Sanctuary is affected by some drivers of change. Changes may be due to a wide range of causes (i.e. prey availabilities, climate change, noise). The correlation of the results obtained with this long term trend analysis with the available time series of  environmental variables (i.e. Sea Surface Temperature and Chlorophyll-a from remote sensing) and  anthropogenic pressure affecting the area (i.e. maritime traffic, fishing activities) will provide essential information to evaluate the implications of the different factors of variability and their possible interactions in order to support appropriate management and conservation strategies.


The Convention on Migratory Species and the European Cetacean Society: working together to bridge policy with science in support of cetacean conservation

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara (Keynote presentation)

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) was adopted in 1983 to address the many threats faced by animal species which regularly cross borders between states, recognising that international cooperation is essential to the implementation of effective conservation measures for such species. Within CMS cetaceans occupy an important place, with 16 species listed as endangered in Appendix I, and 44 as requiring special agreements or cooperation for their conservation, listed in Appendix II. Of these species, many occur in European waters and will benefit from a cooperative effort between CMS and the ECS. CMS also has promoted the creation of several Agreements and MoUs among Range States to conserve cetaceans in specific regions; of these, ACCOBAMS and ASCOBANS are particularly well known within the ECS circle and have directly involved ECS members in many of their activities. Throughout CMS’ history, policy was always based on a solid scientific foundation: science has served the role of flagging issues needing urgent political attention, and of alerting to new issues, such as the danger posed by microplastics and the conservation relevance of dealing with animal culture. In turn, CMS has often served as a connective tissue creating functional links within the wider Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA) world, in order to achieve greater conservation effectiveness. One example among many is the 2014 Resolution on “advancing ecological networks to address the needs of migratory species”, containing an explicit encouragement to Parties to engage in the current Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) effort on Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas (EBSAs), as well as in the application of the criteria for identifying Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) developed by the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force.


Conserving the Mediterranean open sea ecosystems: lessons from the Pelagos Sanctuary

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Simone Panigada, Arianna Azzellino, Tundi Agardy

In 2006, in response to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation call to establish protected areas globally, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) started to develop and apply criteria to describe and designate Ecologically of Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs) in the world’s oceans, which will, inter alia, support the nations’ commitment to achieve the Aichi Biodiversity Targets by 2020. The CBD also encouraged governments and international organizations to identify and adopt measures for conservation and sustainable use in relation to EBSAs, including establishing representative networks of marine protected areas. As part of this effort, the Parties to CBD declared 15 Mediterranean EBSAs in 2014. These EBSAs could portend designation of an ecologically representative network of Mediterranean open sea marine protected areas, which would facilitate the attainment of Aichi Target 11 by the Mediterranean nations. One of the most important EBSAs identified is in the wider Northwestern Mediterranean – an area covered in part by the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals. Established in 1999 by a treaty amongst France, Italy and Monaco and inscribed in 2001 in the Barcelona Convention’s List of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance, the Pelagos Sanctuary has done much to raise awareness about the value of the area for marine mammals and biodiversity, but the current management mechanism is insufficient. Nonetheless, Pelagos is the ideal laboratory for the experimental application of a regional open seas management mechanism, to help achieve a Mediterranean MPA network by 2020. We suggest that establishing a Biosphere Reserve in the North West Mediterranean Pelagic Ecosystem EBSA, which encompasses the Pelagos Sanctuary as well as currently unprotected cetacean critical habitat to the west and the south, could offer demonstration of such a management mechanism in order to pave the way to effective region-wide conservation of the Mediterranean open seas.



Diet of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) of the Gulf of Ambracia, Greece, through stable isotope analysis 

Joan Gonzalvo, Morgana Vighi, Carme Salvador, Alex Aguilar, Ioannis Giovos, Tilen Genov, Asunción Borrell

The interactions among diet, ecology, physiology and biochemistry affect C and N stable isotope signatures in animal tissues; therefore, their analysis provides an effective means to investigate their diet and trophic relations. In this study, skin samples of 16 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) obtained through biopsy techniques in the Gulf of Ambracia, north-western Greece, in July 2013, were analysed for stable isotopes. Ongoing research showed the Gulf hosts a highly ‘resident’ community of about 150 dolphins. Since all 16 animals were photoidentified during the sampling process, based on our existing dolphin catalogue, it was possible to establish that 4 of them were younger than 5-years (i.e., first identified as newborns/calves in 2008/9) and 12 older. The stable isotopes of potential prey locally available in the Gulf, which included 11 species of fish, 1 crustacean and 1 cephalopod, were also analysed and the diet of the dolphins determined through a mixing model. Results indicated that dolphin diet was mostly based on horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus), which represented about 25% of the biomass ingested, followed by species of the family Sparidae (Diplodus annularis and Lithognathus mormyrus) and of the order Clupeiformes (Engraulis encrasicolus, Sardinella aurita and Sardina pilchardus). When age-related variation was examined, younger dolphins were found to present values of δ13C and δ15N lower than the others, which indicated that young animals are likely to exploit a lower trophic level than the adults, probably due to inexperience in foraging or to some particular behavioural adaptation. It is noteworthy that bottlenose dolphins inhabiting this almost enclosed embayment are frequently engaged in surface-feeding. Gaining a better understanding of their feeding habits not only provides important information about the species, but also may be key to identify adequate management measures consistent with an ecosystem-based approach.


Historical records of fin and sperm whale mortality events in the waters around Italy, 1584-2014

Nino Pierantonio and Federico De Pascalis

Fin and sperm whales are the largest cetaceans regularly occurring in the Mediterranean Sea where they classify as ‘Vulnerable’ and ‘Endangered’, respectively, according to the IUCN criteria. Considerable knowledge on their ecology has been gained during the last decades, yet limited information exists on their past mortality patterns. Here we present a review of fin and sperm whale mortality events in the seas around Italy encompassing 5 centuries. Through a review of historical and recent sources a total of 144 (46.8%) and 164 (53.2%) records were validated, for fin and sperm whales, respectively. For both species the most common event was a stranding (60.9%, 61.4%), followed by floating carcasses (15.8%) and collision events (12.8%) for fin whales and by-catch (15.7%) and deliberate killings (9.8%) for sperm whales. The spatial and temporal patterns were only investigated for strandings. Kernel Density Estimation and Hexagonal Polygon Binning showed an uneven occurrence of strandings for both species, with the majority of events occurring along gently sloping beaches, away from suitable species habitat. Strandings occurred at all times of year, but specific seasonal differences were observed. While fin whales mostly stranded during summer, the majority of sperm whale strandings occurred during spring and winter. Although strandings of both species showed a negative trend after peaking in the 1990s, an overall increase of mortality records was apparent throughout the centuries when considering all different types of events. This is most likely the result of rising research effort, as well as greater awareness of the general public. This review presents valuable baseline information for environmental history of cetaceans in a region where sea-related human activities have a long historical presence. Furthermore, they represent a useful tool to investigate the natural and man-related processes and dynamics responsible for cetacean mortality, in particular strandings.


Monitoring fin whales in the Central Mediterranean Sea

The Tethys Research Institute, with the support of the local Marine Protected Area of Pelagie Islands, is monitoring fin whale movement and migration patterns in the Mediterranean Sea through a satellite telemetry programme. Research activities are carried out in the Island of Lampedusa, Central Mediterranean Sea. In the following video (sorry only in italian, but hopefully soon with subtitles) The Tethys vice-president, Simone Panigada, explains why.


The Tethys Research Institute on Wikipedia