‘You cannot manage what you cannot measure’. This quote has been attributed to Peter Drucker, and whether or not he said it is unclear, but I do know that my Environmental Management Lecturer used it ad nauseum. I never thought I would want to hear it again, nor would I be the one spouting it to individuals and organizations, and now to fellow Our Positive Planet readers. So, I apologize. But this blog on the southern right whale survey goes to show that Mr. Drucker, and my lecturer, were really on to something.
The southern right whale aerial survey has been an undertaking by the University of Pretoria MRI (Mammal Research Institute) Whale Unit for the last 38 years. That is longer than some of us have been on the planet, and was launched during a time when conservation mostly brought about ideas of rangers and the bush, and certainly not large ocean dwelling mammals. The cost of whaling on the marine ecosystem was unknown and a group of researchers took to the skies and took it upon themselves to better understand the population dynamics so that they could implement more relevant conservation actions.
Marine science is a wide and varied discipline. There is the common understanding of fish and their interactions with one another and other species. Then there is the more microscopic study of phytoplankton – the organisms that sustain the aquatic food web and there is the more physical side which looks at ocean currents, upwelling and, well, the motion of the ocean. Just like on earth, everything is interrelated. Unlike the interactions which happen between organisms on earth, we have only barely scratched the surface on knowing about the goings on in the ocean.
I spent an afternoon interviewing a passionate and dedicated scientist who is part of a team that deals with understanding some of the larger of the ocean critters – whales – and, more specifically, the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis). The basic purpose of this ‘understanding’ is to see how the population of whales is doing since their International Protection in 1935. The basic purpose of my interview was to share this passion and the incredible work this team is doing. I ended up walking away having learnt so much about history, different types of aircrafts, how to identify whale species from their spray and a number of other weird and wonderful facts – possibly a blog for another time.
Surveys are conducted by air, having used fixed wing aircraft between 1969 and 1979 and now using helicopters post-1979. The main aims are to obtain a count of the southern right whales which the researches see from the air, to take photos from the air of females with calves as well as all individuals with a brindle grey colouration, to identify these whales*, to understand their migration and reproductive success over the years, and finally, to infer the growth or decline of this species in South African waters.
*The callosity pattern of whales (this is a patch of rough skin that they are born with, and which is eventually colonized by barnacles and whale lice) is what makes them unique. Luckily whales come up to breathe so researchers can use these opportunities to get snapping and use these pictures to identify the whales.
Screenshot from the identification software shows the callosity patters of an individual photographed in 1994 and again in 2014
The 2017 survey was carried out over 8 days (29 hours and 30 minutes of flying time, to be precise) and covered approximately 1100kms of coastline. In total the team counted and photographed 534 southern right whales, of which 183 were calves. 6800 photographs were taken and will be analyzed and compared with the Whale Unit’s southern right whale photo-identification catalogue which has ~1900 adults from the previous surveys. The numbers are a vast increase from 2016 where the survey only counted 182 southern right whales, of which 55 were calves.
One of the more exciting parts of the survey, in my opinion, is when the team spot the same whale year after year. A whale seen on this year’s survey was first spotted in 1987 as a partial grey calf, and has since had 6 calves, the first born in 1999 and the most recent one also being a partial grey calf.
The partial grey patterns of this female help in identifying her
In recent studies it was found that the abundance of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) has decreased each year since 2010. Of most concern is that of the decline of adult females in the population as well as the widening gap between the numbers of males and females. And this isn’t a declining population in the thousands; we’re talking an estimate of 458 animals in 2015.
From results in the most recent survey, it seems that the southern right whale population is increasing, whilst the ‘whales share’ of individuals counted were seen in the marine protected area in De Hoop, probably due to the lack of human activity in this area. The most recent survey from the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas in Argentina recorded 788 whales, the highest amount in 47 years of surveys. Australia also boasted of highest recorded numbers in their 2017 survey.
So, then, considering the overall success in surveying and with the increase in population of southern right whales, it begs the question as to whether the team will be able to assist the North Atlantic right whale researchers not only with survey methods but also with conservation ideas. Whilst our northern counterparts face a whole plethora of other conservation challenges, which the Southern Ocean does not face due to a much lower population density, the organisations continue to interact and I sincerely hope that the sharing of ideas can boast better monitoring, and conservation, of these whales. An incredibly important part of research is sharing ideas and, in the day and age of large amounts of data being shared all around the world, it’s time environmental scientists used this technology to their benefit.