Every whale and dolphin is important. You know that, but in the past, conservationists have considered what impact threats and human activities are having on groups (whether that’s populations or species) rather than on individuals. At Whale and Dolphin Conservation we are pioneering a new way of looking at conservation which values the importance of every single whale, dolphin and porpoise.
In the UK, there is a legal as well as a moral imperative to address welfare issues affecting sentient beings that arise as the result of human behaviour. This applies to marine mammals. So to move this thinking forwards, we brought together 20 of the UK’s leading animal welfare experts to take part in a ground-breaking workshop, in partnership with our colleagues at the UK Wild Animal Welfare Committee. Animal welfare science is a cross-disciplinary and multi-faceted field and the workshop included veterinary surgeons, welfare lawyers, social scientists, biologists and expert NGOs.
Human behaviour affects every aspect of the life of a whale, dolphin or porpoise. What we do can affect not just the short-term survival of individuals, but their medium- and long-term physical and mental health, feeding and reproductive behaviour, interactions with family and pod members, awareness and social learning and the survival of populations. We need to consider too that where the welfare of individuals is affected, it may also be an indicator of potential threats to social units, or populations. These population-level effects may take a long time to manifest or to be measured, if at all.
We’re pushing for a more ethical approach to conservation, where welfare and effects on individuals are considered in tandem with safeguarding populations. This would fit much better with the emergent and well-reasoned rationale of ‘compassionate conservation’.
The loss of older, more experienced elephants will have consequences for the wider population, and we expect the same for other advanced social mammals, such as whales, who also live in complex social systems, and have relationships that develop over long lifespans which are comparable to our own and who share knowledge between generations and peers.
In this workshop, we focused on both legal and policy processes and the group of experts agreed overwhelmingly that the welfare needs of individual whales, dolphins and porpoises must be taken into account when any decisions are made that will impact on their populations, or indeed their prey populations, and the places they live. As a group, we produced a clear expert statement that policymakers, conservation managers, governments and other stakeholders can refer to when making decisions about whale and dolphin conservation policy. This statement should help them to make better decisions and take more effective conservation actions by giving them clear guidance and recommendations on how to make the welfare of individual whales, dolphins and porpoises a core part of their thinking.
We will continue to work together to promote and encourage putting welfare at the heart of all decisions taken that affect marine mammals, in the UK and elsewhere in the world. As a practical next step, we will talk with the various UK and devolved government departments about the Statement and our ambition.
We would very much like to thank the workshop participants, and Maureen de Pietro and Patrick Cordingley, without whom it would not have been possible. A full report of the workshop will be available in early 2020.