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Cetacean Conservation with JDB - Day 3

Dr. James Danoff-Burg December 21, 2018



I generally find it hard to really identify progress at the end of multi-day sessions when we have been talking non-stop. When we come to the end of the designated time, clearly an artificial stoppage point, it feels like we have only begun, not that we have just finished. It is a strange feeling to feel incomplete when you have finished.


Irrespective, the end has come to the Ex Situ Options for Cetacean Conference that I’ve been in for most of the last week in Nuremberg, Germany. To be honest, we were not meeting in Nuremberg, but instead in a nearly thousand-year-old monastery (built in 1132!) in neighboring Heilsbronn in the middle of land-locked Bavaria. The antiquity of the venue itself is a bit of an oddity for our location. We are, after all, talking about the impending and irreversible extinction of these dolphin and porpoise species, and to do so in a timeless and unending venue seems jarring.


We have made real progress in several fronts, even if they are all incomplete.

  1. We have identified the seven or so priority species that are most threatened with human-caused extinction, and have compiled the major relevant threats, opportunities, and strategy factors relevant to the conservation of these species. Nearly all are catastrophically threatened as bycatch in gillnets, the single largest problem they face. However, habitat loss, water pollution, and aggressive human consumption of water all run a close second in many of these species.
  2. We have crafted a draft of the major veterinary diagnostic techniques that we must conduct when we are trying to gather necessary, but missing, physiological and behavioral baseline information on these species.
  3. We have created a strategy for how to message about the conservation efforts as they proceed. This is a fraught process, and we are cautiously optimistic that we will be successful in garnering support of the very real need for human intervention in the preservation of these species.

Each of the people here continue to do all we can to address the threats to species where they live, while also recognizing that this in itself is often not enough. Eliminating the threats before they eliminate these species will take a long time. As we saw with the vaquita, even the most aggressive efforts at the end to change fishing practices were inadequate and needed to happen well before it started. Consequently, the consensus emerged from the workshop that we will likely need to intervene in the care and breeding of many of these species. It is not our preference, but they all face extinction and human intervention is going to be necessary to buy us time change behavior in the natural range of the cetaceans.


Often, I feel that conservation requires a middle ground with which no one is completely happy. Caring for these cetaceans in ex situ settings is going to be one of those. All of us would prefer that they be able to live and thrive in their native habitats. We are hopeful that we will eventually improve the native habitats. However, for now, we are going to have to act. None of us want another situation like what the not-yet extinct vaquita faces.

Finished, but incomplete. This is the story of conservation.

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