Don’t let the name fool you, while it might sound like the ECS is a strange place for a pinniped research group to go, the European Cetacean Society (ECS) “was established in January 1987 and aims to promote and advance the scientific studies and conservation efforts of marine mammals”.
It was a busy three days in Malta of catching up with old colleagues (some of which used to haunt the halls of Durham!); sharing a coffee with other UK SMM Student Chapter members, and networking with new researchers and institutions.
Our research group was represented by Amy B; who presented her recent work investigating if male grey seals show signs of behavioural disturbance in relation to anthropogenic activities (e.g. wildlife tourism) during their breeding season; relative to males breeding on quiet, offshore colonies. This talk later won best Student Oral Presentation!!!
Other pinniped talks ranged from investigations into the interaction between seals and fisheries, to the energy demands of walrus calves and juveniles while nursing.
Often when going to a broad conference, it is tempting to open the programme, circle all the talks related to your own area of expertise or research interest, and skip out on the others (particularly if as shown above, you are in a country that is warm, sunny and the beach is only 5 minute walk away!). However, stepping outside of your comfort zone and listening to talks on other topics can be incredibly useful as well. For example, one of the important focuses of our research group is to use interdisciplinary methods and analyses whenever possible to answer our research questions. So hearing about the cetacean research allowed us to apply that mindset to other research and conservation questions: How would you determine the energetics involved in giving birth and nursing when your study species is at sea? How can you tell if a sperm whale is ‘disturbed’ by applying a tag if you don’t have data from before the tag? How do you gather long-term data on presence/distribution of a dolphin when the weather is too bad to sample across large parts of the year, or for parts of the ocean where no one is looking?
Many researchers presented their work trying to answer those questions but the conclusion was in many cases that we still don’t know. It was agreed that in the case of much of marine conservation, it can feel like an uphill battle; with the unknowns and the troubles ahead growing faster than we can answer questions (or successfully apply for grants!). But there was still plenty of optimism for the future of research and conservation of marine mammals–and not just from the students! Technology is improving, people are still dedicated and volunteer many hours of their time, and even though there are many challenges to face (climate change, loss of habitat, marine debris, and an increasingly noisy environment); conferences like this show that progress is being made.
Hopefully we will be able to catch up with many of these friendships and collaborators and see what other exciting research is going on in the marine mammal world in December, for the biennial Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in San Fransisco!