Arabian Sea whales once again featured prominently in discussions of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, which was held between May 11th and 24th, 2020. The meeting was originally scheduled to take place in Cambridge, UK, but for obvious reasons had to shift to a virtual format instead. In order to accommodate different time zones around the globe, live discussions were limited to two-hour time slots each day, during which parallel Zoom sessions were conducted for different subcommittees. Many members of the ASWN were able to participate in this virtual format, and some of the key documents and outcomes are highlighted below:
- As most of you are aware, network members collaborated to produce the annual ASWN Progress report (SC_68b_CMP_11_Rev1). This report summarised ASWN activities over the past year, highlighting progress of individual projects within the network (Oman, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka), and the extension of the CMS Concerted Action for Arabian Sea humpback whales. This was complemented by a report submitted by the IWC’s Standing Working Group on Conservation Management Plans (CMP), which included an update on progress toward a joint IWC-CMS CMP for Arabian Sea humpback whales (SC_68B_CMP_17).
- WWF Pakistan prepared an annual update of the whale sightings reported by the crew-based observers working on the tuna gillnet fleets operating out of Karachi. This report is available as SC_68B_CMP_08 .
- The team from Oman submitted a report on the visual health assessment of ASHW off the coast of Oman, a project that was funded through the IWC SC in 2018. This report (SC_68B_CMP_16_rev1) highlighted a relatively high prevalence of tattoo-like skin disease in the population, as well as evidence of ship strikes and entanglement scarring.
- The Oman team also shared the results of a preliminary study using unoccupied aerial systems (drones) to assess the body condition of ASHW in Oman. This work was conducted with Fredrick Christiansen of Aarhus university and was presented as SC_68B_CMP_23_rev1.
- Sal Cerchio and colleagues shared a paper that has been submitted to a peer reviewed journal, providing evidence for a new blue whale song in the Indian Ocean termed the ‘Oman song’. It was submitted to the meeting as SC_68B_INFO_28.
- The Flukebook team submitted a paper that includes updates on features being added through collaboration with the Indocet and ASWN teams. This also includes information about multiple new species for which ‘computer vision’ matching algorithms are now available (SC_68B_PH_06). The Flukebook team also collaborated with Happy-whale to provide a side-by-side comparison of the two photo-ID platforms, which is very helpful (SC_68B_PH_01).
- A group of researchers working on Sousa plumbea (Indian Ocean humpback dolphins) have collaborated to provide a training dataset of photos that the Flukebook team will now use to develop computer-vision matching algorithms for this species (SC_68B_SM_05).
Although time for discussion was limited, the papers presented raised some interesting questions and a number draft recommendations. These are taken from the draft report, which is not yet final, and thus wording could be changed:
The Committee reiterates that Arabian Sea humpback whales are a priority candidate for a CMP (IWC, 2019a, p.31) and recommends that the IWC Secretariat and SWG-CMP continue efforts with Oman and India towards development of a CMP in partnership with CMS, which already hosts a Concerted Action for the population. It commends the efforts of scientists within the region and especially the Arabian Sea Whale Network to develop a strong scientific basis to guide the development of a CMP and recommends continuation of research presented at this meeting and the network’s regional collaboration.
Furthermore, the Committee:
(1) welcomes the measures put in place by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, India and the coastal State Governments in India along with local research teams, to promote research, awareness-raising, capacity building and bycatch reduction, and offers technical and scientific support for these efforts where appropriate;
(2) recommends that the work of the crew-based observer programme in Pakistan (SC/68B/CMP/08) continue, if possible mapping fishing effort as well as sightings, and that it be replicated throughout the region where possible, especially in areas where systematic cetacean surveys are not feasible;
(3) encourages continued collaboration between the Pakistan observer programme and the IWC Bycatch Mitigation Initiative (BMI), and also encourages broader collaboration between relevant national governments, researchers and the BMI including through pilot projects on bycatch management, knowledge exchange or requests for capacity building initiatives.
(4) recommends that the use of passive acoustic monitoring to document whale presence and to analyse song be continued in Oman and on the west coast of India and commences off the Sindh and Balochistan coasts of Pakistan, making every effort to ensure simultaneous recordings in all three counties, so that song comparisons can be made across the Arabian Sea;
(5) recommends the continued use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and other photographic methods (systematic assessment of images for evidence of disease, epizoites and anthropogenic scarring) to assess body condition and health of ASHW off the coast of Oman with the objective of adopting these metrics as proxy indicators of some of the key ecological attributes related to on-going population trend assessment and conservation planning for ASHWs;
(6) recommends that fishing effort and location of gear that may cause entanglements of ASHW are more accurately mapped throughout ASHW range, especially in the most dense and critical habitat, to assess co-occurrence and risk, in order to better inform mitigation measures;
(7) recommends that a comparative study be conducted between the Oman ASHW catalogue and other Southern Hemisphere Indian Ocean catalogues to assess prevalence and coverage of barnacle scarring and colonization, to determine whether this can be used as a proxy measure for distinguishing ASHW from SH whales.
Three funding proposals were submitted to continue acoustic monitoring for humpback and blue whales off the coasts of Oman and India, and to map human activity as well as carry out more UAS work to assess ASWH body condition off the coast of Oman. These proposals were supported by the Scientific Committee and will be sent to the Commission for endorsement by ‘post’ in the coming weeks.
Due to COVID 19, there will no Commission meeting in the autumn as originally planned. Urgent decisions will be dealt with by ‘postal votes’, and the meeting will take place in September/October 2021 instead. As such, the next IWC Scientific Committee meeting in spring 2021 will be labelled IWC/SC 68C. We hope that meeting will be able to be held in person in Bled, Slovenia, as planned, and that it will provide an opportunity to assess progress within the network, and make more valuable connections with researchers around the world.
On December 21st, 2019, scuba divers near Netrani Island off the west coast of India (State of Karnataka) encountered something extraordinary while travelling to their dive site: a humpback whale. The dive masters from Dive Goa, Absolute SCUBA India and West Coast Adventures knew this sighting was special, because they had all been in contact with Dipani Sutaria, who had travelled along India’s west coast from 2016 onward raising awareness of the Endangered status of Arabian Sea humpback whales, and the value of documenting their presence. Seemant Saxena from Absolute SCUBA India and Paritosh Agarwal from Dive Goa entered the water, free-diving through the murky depths to capture a few seconds of underwater footage of the whale to share with Dipani.
Dipani immediately shared this footage with her colleagues working with humpback whales on the other side of the Arabian Sea. She hoped that they would be able to discern some features of the whale in the video that would allow them to identify and match it to one of the individual whales catalogued through 20 years of photo-identification work in Oman. Had it been any other whale, the matching exercise would have been futile, as the water was filled with plankton, and the whale’s features were not very clearly visible. What was visible was a large, white U-shaped scar over the top of the whale’s back, another white scar on the tail fluke where it joined the whale’s trunk, and, as the team peered more closely through the milky water in the video, it seemed that this whale was missing most of the left side of its tail fluke.
Only one whale in the Oman catalogue fit this description – Individual OM11-010, a whale observed and photographed on two consecutive days in October 2011 in the Gulf of Masirah. Careful comparison of all the available photos of this whale with the whale in the Netrani video revealed more similarities, including more scars and the distinctive notches on the trailing edge of the tail fluke. The international team of five experienced researchers concluded with certainty that that this must be the same whale.
‘This is a hugely exciting finding.’ says Andy Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services, lead scientist on whale surveys conducted on behalf of the Environment Society of Oman. ‘Firstly it confirms that OM11-010 is still alive, despite the severe injuries we first documented over 8 years ago. Secondly, it provides further evidence that Endangered Arabian Sea humpback whales are moving between Oman and India’. Trans-Arabian-Sea movement was first documented in November 2017 when a female whale that was satellite tagged off the coast of Oman journeyed to the Southern tip of India and back to Oman again.
However, the sighting is also a sobering reminder of the threats that Arabian Sea humpback whales and other whale and dolphin species face in the Arabian Sea and around the world. Arabian Sea humpback whales are distinct in that they don’t migrate long distances between tropical breeding grounds and polar or temperate feeding grounds. Instead they remain in the Arabian Sea year-round. Genetic, acoustic, and photographic evidence shows that the population is isolated from neighbouring populations in the Southern Hemisphere, and that fewer than 100 whales are present off the coast of Oman.
Expert analysis of high resolution images of OM11-010’s injuries indicate that they were caused by entanglement in fishing gear. The phenomenon has been documented in other humpback whale populations as well, and leaves tell-tale signs. The scars on the remaining half of OM11-010’s tail show where a rope or net was tightly wrapped around the fluke in a pattern symmetrical to the line of amputation of the missing fluke. Scars on the whale’s back and flank show where a rope was so tightly wrapped over the dorsal fin that it cut into the whale’s skin and muscle and left a deep and lasting deformity. Studies of different humpback whale populations around the world indicate that the proportion of whales bearing signs of fisheries entanglement can range from 25% in Iceland2, to 65% in the Gulf of Maine2, and as high as 70% off the coast of Alaska3. These statistics only represent the whales that survive their entanglements. Bycatch in fishing gear is known to be the biggest threat to marine mammals around the globe, causing an estimated 600,000 deaths annually4.
Teams on both sides of the Arabian Sea are working hard to protect whales from entanglement and other threats by studying their distribution and behaviour and working with relevant authorities to put protection measures in place. As part of a long-term study funded by the International Whaling Commission, Sutaria and her colleagues have recently deployed two passive acoustic recorders that will record humpback whale and other marine mammal vocalizations off the west coast of India and provide more insight into when and where whales are present there. The Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has listed Arabian Sea Humpback Whales as a priority endangered species for Recovery, has endorsed a Concerted Action under the Convention on Migratory Species, supported the proposal for a Conservation Management Plan under the International Whaling Commission, and has provided funding to the Karnataka State Forest Department for an Arabian Sea Humpback whale research and recovery program.
Willson and colleagues from the Environment Society of Oman and other organisations around the world are adding new and exciting techniques to their 20-year-long study of humpback whales off the coast of Oman, including the use of drones to measure body condition and health.
This recent finding is an excellent example of the need for continued and increased regional collaboration to better understand and protect this Endangered population of whales.
Additional information can be found on the following websites:
Arabian Sea Whale Network website: https://arabianseawhalenetwork.org/
IUCN Red List Assessment for Arabian Sea humpback whales: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/132835/3464679
The Environment Society of Oman’s Website: http://www.eso.org.om/index/list3.php?categoryId=339
Five Oceans Environmental Services: https://www.5oes.com/
Marine Mammals of India Website: http://www.marinemammals.in/mmi/
For more information contact:
Dipani Sutaria: email@example.com
2 Basran, C. J. et al. First estimates of entanglement rate of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae observed in coastal Icelandic waters. Endangered Species Research 38, 67-77 (2019).
1 Robbins, J., and D. K. Mattila. 2000. Gulf of Maine humpback whale entanglement scar monitoring results 1997-1999, Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, MA.
3 Neilson, J. L., Straley, J. M., Gabriele, C. M. & Hills, S. Non‐lethal entanglement of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in fishing gear in northern Southeast Alaska. Journal of Biogeography 36, 452-464 (2009).
4 Read, A., Drinker, P. & Northridge, S. P. Bycatch of Marine Mammals in U.S. and Global Fisheries. Conservation Biology 20, 163-169 (2006).
In early December 2019, scientists announced the approval of 37 new Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) in one of the more ecologically rich, yet conservation challenged areas of the worlds oceans—the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas. The new IMMAs highlight key habitats for various threatened marine mammal species, including endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, and the threatened dugong. IMMAs are an important first step toward
greater protection efforts, including in some cases, the establishment of marine protected areas.
IMMAs are defined as discrete portions of habitat, important for one or several marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. IMMAs are identified through a carefully planned process in which experts are convened in regional workshops to collate and assess all the information about marine mammal habitat in that region. The process draws from published and unpublished sources, often precipitating the most comprehensive review of marine mammal distribution and habitat use in the chosen region. Each proposed area of interest is assessed based purely on biocentric criteria , that fall into four main categories: (1) Species or Population Vulnerability, (2) Distribution and Abundance (small resident population, Large aggregation), (3) Life Cycle Activities (Breeding habitat, Feeding habitat, migration routes) (4) Special Attributes (distinctiveness, diversity).
Once submitted, each IMMA proposal undergoes a critical scientific review by at least two independent reviewers, much like the submission process of peer-reviewed scientific journals. Only proposed areas that can fully demonstrate fulfillment of at least one criteria attain full IMMA status, after which point they are published on the eAtlas, and can be used in conservation planning by a variety of stakeholders. It is hoped, for example, that industry can use this information to either avoid IMMAs or effectively mitigate the impact of any of their planned activities in them, and that governments can use IMMAs to help guide their deliberations on where to place marine protected areas or other coastal zone management efforts.
The IMMA process for the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas was launched in 2019. A regional workshop took place on March 4th-8th 2019, in Salalah, Oman, and involved 38 marine mammal scientists and observers from 15 countries, with several more scientists contributing to assessments and proposals remotely. The IMMAs identified as a result of these workshops and subsequent independent review can now be viewed on an IMMA eAtlas. Efforts to use these IMMAs to guide effective conservation measures are already underway, with the example of a recent implementation visit to Bazaruto Archipelago to Inhambane Bay Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA), Mozambique in November 2019.
The 37 IMMAs in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas were identified for the Arabian Sea humpback whales, Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, high cetacean species diversity, dugong aggregations, concentrations of Omura’s whale, as well as three different populations of blue whales.
Follow the links below to find more information on each of the 37 new IMMAs:
- Aldabra Atoll IMMA
- Bazaruto Archipelago and Inhambane Bay IMMA
- Cape Coastal Waters IMMA
- Comoros Island Chain and Adjacent Reef Banks IMMA
- Dhofar IMMA
- Farasan Archipelago IMMA
- Greater Pemba Channel IMMA
- Gulf of Kutch IMMA
- Gulf of Masirah and Offshore Waters IMMA
- Gulf of Salwa IMMA
- Indus Estuary and Creeks IMMA
- Kisite-Shimoni IMMA
- Lakshadweep Archipelago IMMA
- Lamu Offshore IMMA
- Madagascar Central East Coast IMMA
- Maldives Archipelago and Adjacent Oceanic Waters IMMA
- Mascarene Islands and Associated Oceanic Features IMMA
- Menai Bay IMMA
- Miani Hor IMMA
- Mozambique Coastal Breeding Grounds IMMA
- Muscat Coastal and Shelf Waters IMMA
- Nakhiloo Coastal Waters IMMA
- North East Arabian Sea IMMA
- Northern Gulf and Confluence of the Tigris, Euphrates and Kuran IMMA
- Northern Red Sea Islands IMMA
- North West Madagascar and North East Mozambique Channel IMMA
- Oman Arabian Sea IMMA
- Seychelles Plateau and Adjacent Oceanic Waters IMMA
- Shelf Waters of Southern Madagascar IMMA
- Sindhudurg-Karwar IMMA
- South East African Coastal Migration Corridor IMMA
- South West Madagascar and Mozambique Channel IMMA
- Southern Coastal Shelf Waters of South Africa IMMA
- Southern Egyptian Red Sea Bays, Offshore Reefs and Islands IMMA
- Southern Gulf and Coastal Waters IMMA
- Toliara, St. Augustine Canyon and Anakao IMMA
- Watamu-Malindi and Watamu Banks IMMA
Listen to ASWN member Umair Shahid talk about cetacean bycatch in the Indian Ocean on the Marine Mammal Science Podcast by clicking here. The talk features a great description of WWF Pakistan’s innovative crew-based observer programme that has yielded valuable information on bycatch rates and species, as well as successful bycatch reduction methods. Umair also talks about his work with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and the International Whaling Commission’s Bycatch Mitigation Initiative, as well as regional efforts to reduce bycatch of many different taxa.
Participants to the IWC Workshop on Bycatch Mitigation Opportunities in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. May 7-9, 2019, Nairobi.
This week two new workshop reports have been released, each containing a wealth of valuable information related to conservation of cetaceans in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas. The first is the Report of the IWC Workshop on Bycatch Mitigation Opportunities in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. It is available for download by following this link https://iwc.int/bycatch-mitigation-in-the-indian-ocean-iwc or directly through the IWC archive https://archive.iwc.int/pages/view.php?ref=9612&k=
This workshop, which was held in Nairobi in conjunction with the IWC Scientific Committee meeting was funded by generous contributions from the Government of France, the US Marine Mammal Commission, the Pew Foundation, the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association. It included a range of presentations on innovative approaches to assessing, monitoring and mitigating bycatch, as well as some hands-on sessions where participants worked together to identify potential bycatch hotspots, where further research and mitigation efforts can be directed. The workshop resulted in a number of recommendations for collaborative work to reduce bycatch in the region. A few key recommendations are pasted in the table below.
The second Report of note is the Preliminary report of the Workshop on identification of Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas. This report can be downloaded here:
Candidate IMMA proposals drafted during that workshop are in the final stages of review and revision. Once the final IMMAs and Areas of Interest have passed the independent reviewers and correspondence concluded with those needing further information, the IMMAs and AoI will be placed on the IMMA e-Atlas with background PDFs for each IMMA. Once that is in place, a final report will be issued with the final numbers and list of IMMAs and AoI for the region.
Both workshops involved a number of ASWN members, and allowed them to share their knowledge and expertise, while also learning from ‘neighbours’ working in other parts of the Indian Ocean. Both workshops also paved the way forward to continued and increased collaboration to address the challenges of protecting cetaceans and their habitat.
Summary of Recommendations of the IWC Bycatch Workshop:
- The workshop recommends that governments in the Indian Ocean region establish or strengthen bycatch assessment and reduction programmes as a matter of urgency, with priority on bycatch hotspots areas identified across the region. Associated actions could include rapid risk assessments, on-board data collection, mitigation trials (experimental and existing measures) and/or implementation of effective management measures.
- The workshop recommends that governments and other relevant stakeholders in the Indian Ocean region carry out cetacean sampling surveys to collect information on species abundance and distribution at national and regional scales and encouraged that this information could be shared with the IWC Scientific Committee.
- The workshop recommends that the IWC (including through its Conservation Committee) develop and communicate recommendations to governments on the importance of addressing bycatch through policies and other measures that support bycatch mitigation efforts, and of more coherent approaches across government departments with different mandates; and promotes the sharing of information and experience between its contracting members.
- The workshop recommends that the BMI assist bycatch reduction efforts in the Indian Ocean region, including through:
- raising awareness and prioritisation of addressing cetacean bycatch in small to medium-scale gillnet fisheries through its engagement with member countries and other IGOs and NGOs;
- developing a regional road map for bycatch reduction (including assessment, monitoring and mitigation) in collaboration with other relevant bodies (e.g. FAO, IOTC, CMS, national governments);
- providing technical assistance to countries to assess different aspects of cetacean bycatch (e.g. monitoring, assessment, mitigation) and support and promote multidisciplinary monitoring (e.g. social science techniques, economics) and mitigation approaches, including though capacity building;
- exploring means of more consistent and sustainable approaches for funding of bycatch mitigation efforts.
- The workshop recommends that bycatch reduction efforts employ a multi-disciplinary and multi-taxa approach at local, national and international scales.
National Governments in the Indian Ocean region; scientific research community;
- The workshop recommends that the BMI provides technical assistance to governments and other relevant stakeholders within the Indian Ocean region in the design of experimental mitigation trials that are both scientifically rigorous and which supports the livelihoods of fishing communities, as far as is possible.
- The workshop recommends that the IWC (through the BMI and through its conservation and scientific committees) assist efforts to communicate scientific and conservation advice to decision makers in collaboration with other inter-governmental organisations and non-governmental organisations.
- The workshop recommends to governments and other relevant stakeholders in the Indian Ocean region that bycatch monitoring and reduction efforts use (where appropriate) crew-based approaches for collecting data on bycatch and mitigation measures (including where observer programmes are not feasible due to the size of vessel, the large numbers of small and medium-scale fishing vessels, trip length, safety concerns etc).
- The workshop recommends that the BMI assist national efforts by developing a toolbox of more effective tools for communication with fishing communities and associations including the promotion of fisher-exchanges to share experiences of bycatch mitigation efforts and efficacy.
- The workshop recommends renewed efforts by the research community and fisheries technologists in the research and development of low-cost bycatch mitigation and monitoring solutions, particularly for gillnet fisheries and the scaling-up of testing of existing measures (e.g. lights and acoustic deterrents, and experimental low-tech tools) in different fisheries and locations.
- The workshop recognised the importance of capturing socio-economic information as part of a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach, and therefore recommends to countries that monitoring and mitigation programmes should also integrate collection of economic data (CPUE, catch value etc) to be collected and analysed alongside bycatch information.
- The workshop recommends that governments in the Indian Ocean region consider pro-active reassurance to fishers that there will not be negative consequences in response to reporting bycatch and furthermore recommends to use fisher reported data for monitoring and bycatch management purposes rather than for compliance and enforcement.
- The workshop recognised the growing importance of REM methods and the possibility for cost-effective monitoring at a fleet-scale, and therefore recommends that governments and relevant stakeholders in the Indian Ocean region engage in trialling REM approaches for bycatch monitoring, including low-cost methods for small and medium-scale vessels (and in other vessels as appropriate).
- The workshop recommends that the BMI provide technical assistance upon request on the REM systems available and their applicability to a specific situation.
- The workshop concluded that there was an important need to raise the profile of cetacean bycatch and promote bycatch reduction efforts within the context of RFMOs, and specifically within the Indian Ocean and it therefore recommends that:
- The BMI engage more formally and more regularly with the IOTC, the South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission (SWIFOC) and other relevant RFMOs, including in collaboration with other relevant organisations, to encourage more discussion and action of cetacean bycatch monitoring and mitigation in the fisheries under their management. This could be achieved through direct observer status and/or the appointment of regional representatives/contacts to maintain an overview of relevant RFMO meetings and opportunities to participate and/or present information.
- IWC Contracting Governments undertake further efforts to improve the quality and quantity and reliability of cetacean bycatch data reported to the IOTC and to other bodies (including the IWC national reports) and for small-scale fisheries.
- Bycatch Mitigation Initiative; IWC Conservation Committee; IWC Secretariat; National governments in the Indian Ocean region
- That the BMI support where appropriate contracting and non-contracting governments in the exchange of cetacean bycatch information and experiences between neighbouring countries and support the development of transboundary approaches including through BMI engagement with RFMOs
- That the BMI explore its potential to assist countries in fulfilling their reporting requirements under IOTC, as well as the potential for greater sharing of information on bycatch between the IWC and FAO/the RFMOs.