Terrie M. Williams: Vancouver Aquarium is critical to marine mammal conservation

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The Vancouver Aquarium has sent out this letter by Terrie M. Williams, founder of the Center for Ocean Health (University of California at Santa Cruz), ahead of the Vancouver park board's special meeting on July 26:

July 13, 2014

Dear Committee Members,

I am a biologist that has been studying marine mammals for the past 33 years. I am currently on expedition heading north to Greenland to study the most iconic of Canada’s animals, the narwhal. Because of this, I will not be able to attend the open hearing on July 25. But I wanted you to know about the critical role of the Vancouver Aquarium in marine mammal conservation.

We are part of a team studying how oceanic noise from shipping traffic to military sonars and oil exploration may affect wild dolphins and whales. This conservation research has been made possible by foundation work we have been conducting with the beluga whales (a cetacean cousin of narwhals) at the Vancouver Aquarium. Without the Aquarium’s help in determining the basic physiology of whales and in developing our instrumentation we could never have moved forward with this field work.

I’ve worked with zoos and aquariums across the world – you have a jewel in what is sadly a very small network of forward-thinking, conservation-minded zoological facilities. It is unimaginable that anyone would consider the Vancouver Aquarium team, a non-profit organization, as anything less than heroic. Here are just a few my observations about their contributions over the years:

1. Cetaceans. As mentioned above the Vancouver Aquarium and its cetaceans including the beluga whales have been integral to our field research that is directly related to the mitigation of human impacts on wild whales. The application of our cooperative research program concerning heart rates in whales is far-reaching, not just for Canada’s narwhals but for potentially safeguarding millions of marine mammals across the globe. That is how important the work is at the Vancouver Aquarium. Their dolphins and whales work in concert with trainers and researchers as voluntary partners in which the animals teach us about their biology; this has proven to be a powerful research approach.

2. Sea otters. In 1989 the Vancouver Aquarium was one of the first responders that sent volunteer Animal Care personnel to the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. As Director of the Valdez Sea Otter Rescue Center, I relied on their expertise regarding the care of injured sea otters in Valdez. The aquarium staff helped to establish the rehab facility, husbandry protocols and veterinary procedures where none existed in this remote part of the world. When our Valdez facility became inundated with oiled animals, the Aquarium opened their doors to sick and dying sea otters. Not only did they alleviate the suffering of the animals, they provided invaluable feedback to our Alaskan team on oiled otter care and veterinary treatment that led to the survival and release of hundreds of sea otters back to the wild.

3. Pinnipeds. For the past two decades the Vancouver Aquarium has remained the premier facility for the study of Steller sea lion nutrition. This marine mammal is endangered in many parts of the North Pacific and the work conducted at the aquarium has formed a critical part of the US National Marine Fisheries Service Steller sea lion Recovery Plan. Researchers from the Aquarium worked with many of us for over six years to develop the conservation plan for Steller sea lions, the largest of all otariids. It remains the template for conservation and management for this unique species.

Ultimately, the people involved in this debate on both sides have the same goal, to save the dolphins and whales of the world. But we can no longer stand on the beach and hope that the animals will survive on their own in this rapidly changing world- the demise of many of the marine mammals of the North Pacific and now the Arctic have demonstrated that we must act quickly and with intelligence. Three decades of experience has demonstrated to me that such conservation can only take place with knowledge gained though science, and that the critical foundational science can only take place in facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium. They have the infrastructure and expertise to provide superb care for marine mammals while maintaining an unwavering dedication to marine mammal conservation research.

Facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium are a critical instrument in our marine mammal conservation toolbox. This link of marine mammal “facility-to-field” research was first recognized by the founder of the International Society for Marine Mammalogy and father of marine mammal conservation, Dr. Ken Norris, who developed several cetacean research facilities expressly for this purpose. Clearly, without the ability of researchers to work in such facilities, wild dolphins and whales will continue to decline in numbers and eventually go extinct through our ignorance about human impacts on them. A review of the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species demonstrates how critical the situation is for dolphins and whales; we know so little about this group of mammals that most cannot even be ranked on an endangered list- rather they are relegated to “ DD” (Data Deficient) with no conservation plan. We need more facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium to expand and help solve this problem.

We are in a desperate race to save wild marine mammals, and it is unfortunate that valuable time has been lost in arguments. Instead, I hope that the public and politicians will recognize the tremendous good for marine mammals that is done by the working partnership between humans and marine mammals in facilities such as the Vancouver Aquarium. Their Director and staff are committed to marine mammal welfare and are deserving of our support.

Sincerely,

Terrie M. Williams PhD
Founder, Center for Ocean Health- Long Marine Lab
University of California- Santa Cruz,
100 Shaffer Road
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Comments (4) Add New Comment
Jon Q. Publik
That's not science! Oh wait it actually is, maybe the PB commissioners so enthralled by the voice of the animals that they supposedly can commune with will wake up and realize that vital research is actually being done at the VA.
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Rating: +19
frances
Research on ocean mammals is fine. I just don't see why it has to be conducted in the middle of the city in what was a once beautiful park and also involve life sentences for whales in concrete tanks
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Rating: -17
Ian Boothby
The whales are unreleasable, so it's either life in a tank or as Constance Barnes is suggesting, death.
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Rating: +18
Marcella Moorcroft
Wow, what a fantastic insight into the valuable work the aquarium is doing.
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