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Available now: report of the 2020 (virtual) meeting
of the IWC Scientific Committee

 

The report of the IWC Scientific Committee’s annual meeting is published today. Covid-19 prevented the world’s leading cetacean scientists from meeting in-person for the first time since 1955, but the Committee still found ways to discuss priority issues and provide advice to the Commission.

The 2020 meeting was planned to be in Cambridge, UK, but Covid-19 forced a last-minute switch to a virtual meeting. This presented challenges including a greatly reduced agenda, limited chances for side meetings to tackle some of the more contentious topics, and inconvenient meeting times for many members around the world.  However, a virtual meeting also offered opportunities including the highest attendance ever. 350 participants contributed, with 25% attending for the first time.

Increased participation was not the only opportunity identified by the Scientific Committee in these current, challenging circumstances.  Their report notes that the dramatic global reduction in human activity because of Covid-19 resulted in less ship traffic, less industrial action and quieter oceans.  This led to reports of cetaceans returning to areas they had previously avoided.  The information gathered as a result of this unwelcome but essential global shutdown may provide scientists with insights into how cetaceans could respond to rapid environmental changes in the future.

Sadly, not all the news was positive. The brief reduction in human activity has not been enough to recover some species from endangered or critically endangered status.  Thus, the Committee was still obliged to issue stark warnings. A growing number of cetaceans are candidates for urgent conservation action and the Committee discussed the need for Conservation Management Plans, Task Team interventions or other urgent measures for several species, sub-species or stocks.  These include humpback whales in the Arabian Sea and Central America, Mediterranean sperm whales, Bryde’s whales in the Gulf of Mexico, Iberian Harbour Porpoise, and river dolphins in Southeast Asia and South America. 

The strongest language was reserved for the vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico.  The Committee expressed disappointment and frustration that, despite almost three decades of repeated warnings, the vaquita now hovers on the edge of extinction because of gillnet entanglement and ineffective fisheries management and enforcement measures.

Bycatch in gillnets and other fishing gear remains the single most important threat to cetaceans, and is estimated to kill more than 300,000 animals a year.  This year’s Scientific Committee received an update from the IWC’s Bycatch Mitigation Initiative which is currently developing multi-disciplinary pilot projects to investigate new and experimental approaches to tackling bycatch.  This work was strongly endorsed by the Committee, as was the collaborative, multi-level approach taken by both the IWC’s Bycatch and Entanglement Response Initiatives.  The success of these projects led the Scientific Committee to recommend a similar model for a new initiative to understand and tackle the threat of collision between vessels and cetaceans, known as ship strikes. 

The challenges of Covid-19 led the Scientific Committee to find new ways to manage some of their discussions and provide advice to the Commission.  The Committee produced a set of recommendations and detailed record of  discussions of the items that could be addressed in 2020.  The report of the 2020 meeting is free to download and available here. In 2021, the Committee looks forward to again meeting in person to address the many important agenda items that could not be discussed this year.

To read the 2020 report of the virtual Scientific Committee meeting, click here.

To read previous reports of the IWC Scientific Committee, click here.