Friday, August 30, 2013

An example why captive dolphin studies should not be used to make conservation decisions

The marine mammal research listserve MARMAM has just posted a paper appearing in the journal Aquatic Mammals (Rechsteiner, E. et al. 2013. Seasonal resting metabolic rate and food intake of captive Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). Aquatic Mammals 39(3) 241-252) which  concludes:

"Our estimates of resting metabolic rates and relative changes in total energy intake can be used to parameterize bioenergetic models needed to estimate the ecological impacts and energetic requirements of Pacific white-sided dolphins in the wild, which will have conservation implications."

The partner paper in a different journal (Rechsteiner, E. et al. 2013. Energy requirements of Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) as predicted by a bioenergetic model. Journal of Mammalogy. 94(4) 820-832) also says that the study has useful data for conservation.

But if you look in the MS thesis from which this paper is derived you find:

“The extent to which my results are representative of dolphins in the wild is uncertain given that the behaviours and activities of dolphins in aquaria do not necessarily mimic those of wild dolphins. I am also uncertain whether the occasional heating of the water in the dolphin habitat at the Vancouver Aquarium influenced my results, and I recognize that my conclusions are limited by the small number of animals studied.

Despite such shortcomings, the data collected from the three individuals represent the most comprehensive energetics study conducted to date with Pacific white-sided dolphins, and the only cetacean energetics study that has spanned multiple seasons and examined both resting metabolic rates and total calories ingested”

(p. 49 in Rechsteiner, E. 2013. Testing metabolism, energetics, and seasonal distribution of Pacific white-sided dolphins.  MS thesis. University of British Columbia).
Throughout the papers and thesis are statements about how these data can be used to inform management, in particular issues relating to how many fish dolphins consume and therefore potential conflicts with fisheries.

My first thoughts when I read this were this could immediately be used by certain bodies to try to justify culls of dolphins. Japan already has a large take of Pacific white-sided dolphins (86 dolphins were hunted in the 2010-2011 season; and could use this study to justify that by taking more dolphins they are protecting fisheries.

But really how representative of the thermoregulation and energy use of wild populations are data from 3 individuals that live in a heated pool (in contrast sea surface temperatures in the winter off of British Columbia drop to 3oC), who move limited distances. Pacific-white sided dolphins can move 10s of kilometers in a day, and importantly, are known to migrate, including southwards to warmer waters of Southern California during the winter (e.g. Leatherwood et al.  1988.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Artic Waters. New York:  Dover Publication). So how representative of wild populations really is this study? Probably not very, yet conservation decisions could be made on this study, which the authors appear to be encouraging, but how many managers will read the caveats?

One of the problems with captive cetacean facilities is that they are so desperate to suggest that they have value in the modern world, especially to conservation, that they fiercely push and publicize the few studies that they produce. However, if managers do use these studies they are likely making the wrong decisions as the behavior and ecology of captive animals is vastly different to wild animals. For example, using studies on the sound sensitivity of captive cetaceans (which may suffer hearing loss due to high noise exposure and medical treatments) to predict the impacts on wild populations have wildly underestimates the sensitivity, and therefore underestimate man-made noise impacts on, wild cetaceans (Wright, A.J. et al. 2009. Urging cautious policy applications of captive research data is not the same as rejecting those data. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58: 314-316; Parsons, E.C.M. et al. 2008. Navy sonar and cetaceans: just how much does the gun need to smoke before we act? Marine Pollution Bulletin 56: 1248-1257).

So, my take home message is, studies on captive whales and dolphins have limited applicability to the actual ecology and behavior of wild cetaceans, and as a such using these studies to make conservation, management and policy decisions is inappropriate and possibly even detrimental.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Walk the Walk don't just Talk the Talk - why environmental scientists should set an example

A couple of years ago, I was involved in the organization of a major environmental conference, and we went through excruciating steps to make sure all the food and drink supplied was as environmentally friendly as possible -- locally sourced, organic with as small an environmental impact as possible. Although this was appreciated by most of the delegates, we were shocked when
several environmental scientists and conservation practitioners demanded to hand back their meal
packs and have their money returned, so they could buy food at the local burger bar. We told the
delegates in question that (a) as the food had been ordered and paid for, the NGO organizing the
event would basically have to pay for the cost and make a loss, and (b) we would not be able to resell the food and would have to dispose of it. (Although in the end, we had so much returned we
found a local food bank willing to take a proportion of the returned food, so it was not all thrown
away.) This, however, did not make a difference, and they demanded a refund for the sake of a few
dollars savings with an extremely environmentally unfriendly vendor.

The conference also had an optional “carbon fee” that went towards replanting and wetland
restoration projects, in a bid to offset the environmental impact of delegates jetting around the
world. Unfortunately, few participants subscribed to the scheme. These “ungreen” behaviors had a
big impact on myself, colleagues and students who were helping to organize the meeting. These
practitioners in question were talking about environmental protection and sustainability in the
meeting rooms, yet when it came to it, did not “walk the walk” at a very basic level in their personal lives.

I have also seen this at a university level. At a retreat to discuss developing environmental
programs, a colleague (who went on to become our university’s lead on sustainability on campus) and I went through a trash can after the meeting to pick out all of the aluminum cans that had
been tossed in the trash instead of the can recycling bin right next to the trash can. I’ve also seen
several environmental departmental colleagues from my neighborhood drive past me as I walk the
35-minute walk/10-minute cycle to campus, even though there is a campus bus stop at the end of
our street. If a group of faculty in an environmental department cannot be bothered to make a
minimal effort to recycle, or travel more environmentally responsibly, what hope is there with the
general public?

My final grouse – a common one among department faculty -- is with the building our department is housed in. The flickering lighting, the leaking roof (although now asbestos free), the  cracked flooring, dripping faucets and the best petrochemical –based fixtures the 1960s and 1970s  could provide. Quite frankly showing new environmental studies students or visitors around the  building is almost the equivalent of trying to  impress them by picking them up in a rusting Hummer. It’s a bit of an embarrassment.

Since 2007, my university has laudably pledged that its new buildings on campus would be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver Certified, and thus should have design features and materials that conserve both energy and resources, plus minimize waste. Buildings are sprouting up all around our campus -- blink and there’s a new building. So why doesn’t the university invest in a truly green building to house, and showcase, its environmental programs, i.e. a LEED Platinum Certified building. Other universities in the state have such buildings, but not us, despite having the largest Environmental program in said state. Such a building would be advantageous for marketing our programs for students, and well as serving as a teaching tool.

One of my undergraduate students did a small survey (n=68) of  our students to gauge their support for such a building. When asked, "Would you like to have a 'green' building on campus?" an overwhelming 85.3% said they liked the possibility of having a "green" building on campus. Half of those strongly supported the idea; less than 3% were against the idea.

This was despite the fact that half of those surveyed thought that such a building would cost substantially more -- 16% thought they cost less and 35% didn’t know. However, a staggering 94.1% believed that a “green building” would be good for the university's image, with 69.1% stating that it would be exceedingly positive. Only one person thought a green building would not help the university’s image at all. So this preliminary information suggests there is support from the student body. Sustainability features prominently in our university's new vision statement, so come on administrators, walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.