Introduction to WDC conservation and research projects

Bottlenose dolphin at surface
Bottlenose dolphin at surface
WDC believes that science and practical conservation research is a fundamental tool that enables the development of effective policy and conservation of whales and dolphins. Our approach includes striving for protection and critical conservation measures to be implemented at a population level as efforts can be hindered because of assumptions made at a species level. By taking the species-level-approach as opposed to the population-level-approach we risk extirpation of many distinct populations as their more vulnerable status is overlooked in favour of the status of the species.

Whales and dolphins face a wide range of threats in a rapidly changing world. There are currently some 87 recognised species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the world and the overarching aim of cetacean conservation is clearly to ensure their long-term viability.

Many populations are known to be vulnerable or endangered. Several species are in critical or immediate danger of extinction and with the declaration of the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) as “functionally extinct” at the end of 2007, the previous claim that mankind has yet to cause the extinction of any whale or dolphin “species” is no longer true. The status of many more populations is not well enough known to enable confident assessments to be made about the population’s survival probability, and therefore the precautionary principle should always be applied to their conservation needs.

For listing purposes, the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - the definitive record of animal status -  recognises species, sub-species and sub-populations. Of this, only two species of whales, dolphins or porpoises are listed as Critically Endangered, an additional six as Endangered, five as Vulnerable and five as Near Threatened. Numerous additional species, sub-species and populations are known to be in serious threat of extirpation, yet remain classified as Data Deficient (DD) or of Least Concern (LC) therefore masking the real status of the world's whales and dolphins species. These are sobering statistics, especially when presented with population figures for the remaining New Zealand dolphin, the vaquita and the North Atlantic right whale to name but a few. Many local and regional cetacean populations are seriously depleted and prospects for recovery are uncertain, yet the Red List in the main, only considers the global species level and not populations.

The majority of cetacean species are listed as Data Deficient (DD). Such a designation infers that there is “inadequate information to make a direct, or indirect, assessment of its risk of extinction based on its distribution and/or population status” (IUCN, 2001). This lack of information provides a difficult starting point for conservation efforts as it has been noted that DD species should not be treated as non-threatened, and in fact, according to the IUCN (2011), “it may be appropriate … to give them the same degree of attention as threatened taxa, at least until their status can be assessed”

Whale and dolphin genetics are still at an early stage, meaning that we may not know where one species begins or ends. Some genera appear, in fact, to be in the process of speciation – for example the orcas, where local specialisations may lead to genetically distinct populations. There is much circumstantial evidence to suggest that there is a general pattern of orca differentiation into distinct cryptic species, subspecies, forms or populations, each one of which is likely a small size and consequently subject to risk of extinction. Therefore each may require distinct and separate conservation management. This is one reason why a simple focus on species-level protection is not adequate and why WDC’s approach includes striving for protection at a population level. This is being increasingly recognised and Dizon and Perrin (1997), for example, commented that “conservation efforts need to be directed not only at maintaining the viability of species, but also at maintaining the full range of behavioural, ecological and genetic diversity within species.”

Critical conservation measures that need to be implemented at a population level because of genetic, behavioural and ecological differences are being hindered because of assumptions made at a species level. By taking the species-level-approach as opposed to the population-level-approach we risk extirpation of many distinct populations as their more vulnerable status is overlooked in favour of the status of the species.

To achieve our goal – the conservation of ALL whale and dolphin species – we must approach it from both a species, population and individual level. For example – the common bottlenose dolphin is probably the most well-known and recognized dolphin in the world and the general consensus may be that the species itself is robust/abundant (despite being classified as DD). However, as with most other species of whale and dolphin , the bottlenose dolphin exists as a series of geographically distinct populations that are largely isolated units with little or no genetic exchange and several of these populations are in serious danger of becoming genetically extinct.

The exact taxonomy of the genus Sousa is still a matter for debate and the latest genetic research indicates that the populations of S. chinensis which occur within the South China Sea are distinct from those found in Australia. Only five populations remain in the South China Sea. At one time, however, records show that there were at least 20.

(For up-to-date information on the red list status of each cetacean visit the IUCN's Cetacean Specialist Groups new website).

WDC Project funding

Over the past 20 years, WDC has supported around 185 conservation field projects in over 40 countries, spanning all major ocean regions and relevant river basins. These projects include scientific work such as abundance estimation, population dynamics and behavioural studies, research on threats and threat mitigation, as well as a broad range of conservation initiatives such as encouraging government authorities to designate areas of marine protection; working with local law enforcement agencies; and developing alternative fishing activities to reduce bycatch. WDC is acutely aware that such programmes can only be successful with the full support and participation of local people and aims to identify and work closely with local scientists, conservationists, educators and other community members in each region, in order to ensure long-term solutions for both cetaceans and their often shared, environment.

WDC is also one of the leading supporters of non-invasive cetacean conservation research worldwide and strives to ensure that benign research methods are promoted as a guiding principle, both for the organisation and the researchers that we fund. WDC takes the use of invasive research techniques very seriously and expects researchers operating through funding supplied by WDC supporters to act accordingly. ALL alternatives should be considered before deciding on the inclusion of an invasive method and long-term monitoring of the impacts of any invasive research must be considered. However, WDC acknowledges that there may be extenuating circumstances where invasive methods may be considered as part of a solution, but only where they are likely to result in swift, long-term and significant conservation or welfare benefit.

WDC currently has a large number of high quality projects running around the world and has received many more high quality requests for support. However, please note that at this time, and until further notice, we will not be accepting any unsolicited applications. If you have any questions please contact nicola.hodgins@whales.org