Arabian Sea Whales at the 2024 IWC Scientific Committee Meeting

The 2024 IWC Scientific Committee Meeting took place in Bled, Slovenia from April 22nd to May 3rd, 2024. Representatives from ASWN participated in person and virtually to present both regional updates and results of research conducted at national or project levels. As in past years, the ASWN worked collectively to prepare an annual update for the Scientific Committee. This update included progress against ASWN objectives at the regional level, including coordination, communication and meetings, and contributions from most ASWN range countries with updates on their research, stakeholder engagement and management efforts for Arabian Sea humpback whales (ASHW) and other cetaceans in the region. The update highlighted the Extension of the Convention Migratory Species (CMS) Concerted Action for ASHW and the progress made by stakeholders in Oman towards a National Action Plan for ASHW and participation in the long-hoped-for regional Conservation Management Plan (CMP).  It also showcased the ways in which a wide range of stakeholders including national and international NGOs, government agencies, academic institutions and independent researchers are collaborating on cetacean research, conservation and management. 

The Committee expressed gratitude for the update and commended the ASWN members, the Oman Environment Authority, and other government officials and stakeholders for their efforts, collaborations, and scientific contributions over the past two decades. The Subcommittee acknowledged the growing support from ASHW range-country governments, particularly Oman and India, and noted Oman’s plan to form a cross-government committee to draft a national ASHW Action Plan and guide its participation in a regional CMP process. The Subcommittee welcomed the extension of the CMS Concerted Action and reiterated its support for the development of a joint CMS-IWC CMP for Arabian Sea humpback whales. It recommended the continued involvement of at least one range-country scientist in regional communications and coordination, emphasizing the need for a full-time CMP Coordination role once a CMP is approved.

Several documents and papers were presented by ASWN members at the meeting, including the following:

  1. SC/69B/CMP/05_Rev 1: summarized the activities and progress of the Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) and its members since SC69A (see more details above).
  2. SC/69B/CMP/16Rev_1: provided an update on research conducted in Oman from 2023 to 2024, showcasing vessel-based studies funded by the Oman Environment Authority (EA) in the Gulf of Masirah in November, 2023.  The survey documented  multiple Arabian Sea humpback whales, Bryde’s whales, and humpback dolphin sightings. Drone imagery and biologging devices were employed to assess whale bioenergetics and behavior, and one whale was tagged with a transdermal satellite tag.The committee emphasized the importance of continued research activities in Oman, including fisheries and ship strike risk assessments, photo-id and genetic data collection, and updating abundance and trend models with recent data to inform conservation efforts and IUCN Red List assessments.
  3. SC/69B/CMP/12: provided a mark-recapture analysis of photo-ID records and genetic data from Omani waters (2000-2018). The analysis estimated the abundance and trend of Arabian Sea humpback whales (ASHWs). The photo-ID modeling was analyzed in relation to genetics, telemetry, acoustics, and strandings data that all support the  conclusion that the population in Oman’s waters likely declined from 2000 to 2018. The Committee welcomed the analysis, recognizing the importance of continued photo-ID data collection. However, the committee noted that the estimates provided in SC/69B/CMP/12 are provisional and likely to change with new data, and should not be cited before the completion of updated analyses.
  4. SC/69B/HIM/21: provided a bycatch risk assessment of ASHWs within their core home range (Gulf of Masirah Oman) through integration of satellite imagery to detect vessels and satellite telemetry data to define whale habitat. The high-risk bycatch score modeled for this area flag it as a priority concern to be addressed within a conservation management plan, whilst the method demonstrates potential to be applied across the broader part of the population’s range as a regional scale conservation management tool.
  5. SC/69B/ForInfo/54: reported on the results of a study funded by the IWC to conduct exploratory surveys for humpback whales along the western coast of India between 2016 and 2021, utilizing interview surveys, participatory informant networks (PIN), and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM). This effort identified five hotspots where species have been reported offshore along the west coast of India. PAM off Netrani Island in Karnataka and Poovar in Kerala detected ASHW, blue whales, and an unidentified whale call. The sub-committee commended India’s passive acoustic monitoring efforts and recommended continued PAM implementation along the coasts of India and Oman, suggesting expansion to other areas of historical or potential ASHW distribution, including the Indus canyon region off the coast of Pakistan, with consideration for geopolitical challenges. Simultaneous deployments in different regions are encouraged to enable whale presence detection and song comparison.
  6. SC/69B/E/10: presented the first comprehensive review of cetacean stranding records in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), conducted using 125 opportunistic stranding records between 1989 and 2023, using a variety of sources. The Committee commended the strandings work in the UAE, which is an underrepresented region, and recommended (1) the continued collection of stranding information from the UAE; and (2) collaboration with partners in neighboring countries in order to obtain a better understanding of the extent and distribution of cetacean strandings in the region.
  7. SC/69B/SM/05: provided an update on collaborations to enhance conservation efforts for the Endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) by the Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin Conservation Network (HuDoNet).
  8. SC/69B/SAN/03Rev2: provided an update on the Indian Ocean Cetacean Network (IndoCet), which focuses on cetacean research and conservation in the south-western Indian Ocean (SWIO). The Committee praised IndoCet’s accomplishments and urged continued efforts, recommending the development of a species action plan for Indian Ocean humpback dolphins through formal mechanisms like the CMS Concerted Action initiative or the IWC CMP process.
  9. SC/69B/HIM/03: provided guidelines on best practices for the disentanglement of free swimming small cetaceans. The Committee endorsed the guidelines in SC/69B/HIM/03 as Best Practices for the Disentanglement of Free-Swimming Small Cetaceans and recommended that they are made available through the IWC website and other dissemination channels.

Furthermore the following papers, originally prepared for and presented at the 19th Indian Ocean Tuna Commission Working Party on Ecosystems and Bycatch meeting in September 2023, were presented and discussed in the HIM subcommittee of the IWC Scientific Committee.

  1. IOTC-2023-WPEB19-27_rev1: provided a review of the scope of the Marine Mammal Protection Act Import Rule for IOTC Members, particularly for those with gillnet fisheries, and discussed potential synergies between the Rule and IOTC bycatch reporting and monitoring. This preliminary review was one part of an ongoing, broader analysis of unilateral and multilateral approaches to bycatch management in the Indian Ocean across multiple scales.
  2. IOTC-2023-WPEB19-28: this study focused on Pakistan’s drift gillnet fleet as a case study. The paper discussed existing data on catch and bycatch, the potential of satellite imagery and deep learning for fisheries management, and the methods, challenges, and insights gained. It served as a foundational study for similar analyses in the Indian Ocean and beyond to enhance understanding of data-poor fisheries.
  3. IOTC-2023-WPEB19-24_rev3: provided an ecological risk assessment of cetaceans to Indian Ocean tuna fisheries. This study highlighted the need to better quantify cetacean bycatch in Indian Ocean tuna fisheries, particularly in gillnet fisheries.

The Committee welcomed the ongoing and strengthening collaboration between the IWC BMI (Bycatch Mitigation Initiative) and the IOTC. 

Actions recommended for the ASW by the Scientific Committee at IWC-SC Meeting 2024

The SC highlighted the following priority actions to advance the conservation efforts for Arabian Sea humpback whales:

  1. Continued involvement of at least one range-country scientist in regional communications and coordination, noting the need for a full-time CMP coordination role.
  2. Continuation of fisheries and ship strike risk assessments and work with stakeholders to develop mitigation measures for threats within the most important known habitat for Arabian Sea humpback whales, the Gulf of Masirah and Offshore waters IMMA.
  3. Continuation of collection of photo-ID and genetic data from Arabian Sea humpback whales. If possible, the sampling should be expanded to encompass wider temporal (and possibly spatial) coverage to increase sample sizes for updated abundance and trend modeling.
  4. Use of data collected from 2019 onwards to update models of abundance and trends, and to update the visual health assessment conducted by Minton et al. (2022).
  5. Formal review of the abundance estimates presented in SC/69B/CMP/12rev1 (or an update thereof) by the IWC’s ASI/ASG, and publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
  6. Continuation of passive acoustic monitoring off the coasts of India and Oman and implementation in other areas of historical or potential Arabian Sea humpback whale distribution.
  7. Completion the genetic analyses to provide clarity on the taxonomic status of ASHW.
  8. Organization of an in-person workshop in Oman to progress the development of a CMP.

The IWC Scientifc Committee report and its annexes can be downloaded here.

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