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The IWC Scientific Committee today publishes the report of its annual meeting – and beats all previous attendance records with nearly 600 participants. 

The Committee brings together leading cetacean scientists from all over the world.  It has met every year since 1955 to review relevant research and information, and provide scientific advice to the Commission. In 2020, Covid-19 forced the Committee to make a last-minute switch to a virtual format which was refined and repeated for this year’s meeting. 

Like many other organisations, the Scientific Committee recognised that, as well as some difficult challenges, a virtual meeting is an opportunity to increase accessibility, receive more diverse scientific perspectives, and raise awareness of their work to a wider audience.  In-person meetings are usually attended by 150-200 people.  The 2020 virtual meeting attracted a record 350 participants, which was far exceeded in 2021 as the IWC welcomed registrations from nearly 600 specialists in cetacean research and conservation.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic extended beyond the format of the meeting and into the discussions themselves.  Marine debris is a long-standing concern of the Committee which heard that a surge in ocean waste, primarily Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has contributed to over 1000 published cases of entanglement or ingestion. 

As part of the wider response to Covid-19, the Committee discussed the intricate relationship between humans, animals and the environment, voicing support for the One Health concept and considering ways to embed this multi-disciplinary approach into the work of the Committee. 

A number of existing IWC programmes already play a role in this work, including training in cetacean post-mortem examination known as necropsies.  Necropsies provide evidence of cause of death and this is part of an initiative to share best practice in responding to stranded animals. The aim is to perform and record necropsies around the world using consistent, standardised protocols, in part to improve both understanding and information-sharing on emerging cetacean diseases, their behaviours and ability to spread.  

The long-running Pollution Initiative is also relevant to the One Health approach.  This year the Committee proposed a new phase of further study into different types of pollutants and their cumulative effects.  The Committee drew attention to two important tools in pollutant research, the IWC Effects of Pollutants on Cetacean Populations Model and the IWC Contaminant Mapping Tool, and agreed to update the mapping tool which enables researchers to view trends in concentrations of common contaminants over time and can be sorted by species, contaminant type, region or decade.

Climate change is of course integral to addressing the relationship between humans, animals and the environment.  This year the Committee considered new research into the impacts of climate change on cetaceans, noting that the focus has broadened out from the polar regions to other areas and species. This will be discussed further at a virtual workshop planned later this year.

The biggest direct threat to cetaceans remains accidental bycatch in gillnets and other fishing gear which is estimated to kill over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises every year.  The Committee received an update on the IWC’s Bycatch Mitigation Initiative (BMI) which has embarked on a new, four-year workplan.  The initiative maintains its focus on pilot projects with particular progress reported in Peru and the Republic of Congo.  The BMI  also continues to explore opportunities to collaborate, build capacity for monitoring and for mitigation, and to raise both funds and awareness. 

Bycatch mitigation is a recurring theme in work to improve conservation outcomes of several species and populations of small cetaceans (dolphins and porpoises).  The Committee runs two work programmes specifically addressing threats to small cetaceans.  The Task Teams initiative aims to provide rapid and targeted responses to situations where significant and swift population decline is happening. The Small Cetaceans Voluntary Fund (SCVF) supports high priority research and is made possible by voluntary contributions from  member governments and Non-Governmental Organisations. 

The most recent call for SCVF research applications was issued in February and fifty six proposals were received. A rigorous assessment process noted the high quality of all applications and selected five which are considered to address particularly important knowledge gaps for threatened populations or species. The Committee also received updates on research projects recently completed with support from the SCVF, and commended a short film explaining a research programme that produced the first region-wide estimates of population size and status for Chilean dolphins.

Two new Conservation Management Plans (CMPs) were also endorsed during the meeting.  The CMP initiative provides a framework for countries within the range of vulnerable cetacean populations (known as range states) to work together, and in collaboration with other relevant stakeholders, to protect and rebuild those populations.  Four CMPs are already in place.  The first new one is for Central American humpback whales.  The second is for South American river dolphins, only the second CMP for a small cetacean species.  The new CMP proposals will be presented for endorsement by the Commission at the earliest opportunity.

The Committee also received the latest information about whale stocks subject to Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) and has plans to initiative Implementation Reviews for several of those stocks in 2022.  Available information indicates that ASW hunts continue to be sustainable while also meeting the needs of Aboriginal people involved in those hunts.

The Committee continues to gather information and conduct population assessments of large cetaceans around the world, considering population size and trend, possible stock structure, and human impacts on cetaceans.  The purpose of this large effort is to better understand the status and recovery of cetaceans and raise awareness if populations are at risk.

More detail on these and all the topics addressed at the Scientific Committee is available in the report of the meeting. The report summarises discussions and also records the recommendations and workplans of all the Scientific Committee work areas, which range from assessing population sizes and structures to whale watching, ecosystem modelling and whale sanctuaries.


If you are interested in donating to the Bycatch Mitigation Initiative, the Small Cetaceans Voluntary Fund or any other IWC work programme please contact secretariat@iwc.int