MMC Newsletter  •  Spring 2017
Six Species
We work to ensure that marine mammal populations are restored and maintained as functioning elements of healthy marine ecosystems in the world's oceans.
Our Top Stories for 2016
2016 was a busy year for us. We supported ongoing efforts to save the most endangered marine mammal on earth, we continued our fight against the number one killer of marine mammals globally, we worked to protect the livelihoods of Alaska Natives, we funded novel, low-cost, research projects to achieve a large impact, and the list goes on. Check out our 2016 Annual Report, which highlights our top stories and accomplishments for 2016.
Marine mammal bycatch: a new perspective
Fishery bycatch is the primary cause of mortality for marine mammals despite the best efforts of governments, NGO's, and the fishing industry. In a  recent paper, Rebecca Lent, Executive Director of the Marine Mammal Commission, presents the case for considering an alternative, incentive-oriented approach to bycatch reduction. In some cases, taking an economist's perspective may shed light on new tools to help us better tackle this challenging issue.
Small grants solve a big problem
The most challenging step in conducting research is often the first one- getting the project off the ground. With tight budgets all too common, scientists are regularly in intense competition to acquire the necessary funds to get to work. Funding agencies seek proof of concept before providing any support, and researchers need financial support to develop their proof of concept. Small grants, like those offered by the Marine Mammal Commission each year, solve this problem by providing seed money (<$20,000) for small-scale, unique, and impactful research projects. We are proud of our past support of highly successful projects and highlight a few of them on our new webpage.

Hawaiian monk seal with  “Crittercam” as part of a project funded in FY13.
Photo: Mark Sullivan
Balancing offshore wind energy development & marine mammal protection
There is a lot to learn from offshore wind energy sites in Europe, where development has been ongoing for nearly a decade. 

The first U.S. offshore wind energy project is now underway off of the coast of Rhode Island, with similar projects in various stages of planning elsewhere along the Atlantic coast. In March 2017, we participated on an expert panel convened by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to develop best management practices to guide the construction and operations of critical offshore infrastructure. The panel discussed the potential impacts of wind turbine construction, such as noise from pile driving and increased vessel traffic, on North Atlantic right whales and other marine mammal species. Mitigation and monitoring strategies were identified that could reduce impacts and fill key data gaps. Find out more about the workshop here
Efforts to rebuild Irrawaddy dolphin populations face new challenges
The  Irrawaddy dolphin ( Orcaella brevirostris) population in the Mekong River has been reduced to fewer than 100 individuals, primarily due to entanglement in fishing nets. We are  working with WWF-Cambodia, the Cambodian government, and the IUCN to bring experts to Cambodia to assess the threats to this freshwater dolphin population and to build on-the-ground capability in law enforcement and population and health assessments. At the most recent workshop in January 2017, the Cambodian fisheries department reported on the work of river guards stationed along the river to remove illegal gillnets from the freshwater dolphin’s core habitat in the Mekong River and spread awareness of fisheries laws in local fishing communities. Their progress in reducing dolphin mortality and building international collaboration is overshadowed by news of the proposed construction of the Sambor and Stung Treng hydropower dams. As detailed in a recent letter in Science, these dams, if built, will eliminate or transform most of the dolphins’ remaining riverine habitat.
  Wildlife officials remove illegal gillnets from a Cambodian waterway, paving the way for the recovery of the Irawaddy dolphin, seen below.  
Vaquitas often get trapped in gillnets targeting totoaba, seen below. 
Photo: Cristian Faesi, Omar Vidal (C)
Illegal fishing drives the vaquita population to the brink of extinction

In November 2016, the International Recovery Team for the Vaquita (CIRVA) met to review the results of the latest acoustic monitoring surveys. The team estimated that only 30 individuals remained in fall 2016. Illegal totoaba fishing continues unchecked despite the presence of Mexican Navy enforcement and civil society (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) monitoring efforts. From 15 December 2016 to 7 March 2017 over 90 active illegal totoaba gillnets were recovered by Sea Shepherd. Recently, the fishing season for the legal harvest of corvina, which serves as a cover for illegal totoaba fishing, was halted due to a lack of environmental impact assessments. There is no indication that this has lessened illegal fishing for totoaba.  At least three dead vaquitas have been encountered since the New Year. Given the inherent danger of waters littered with gillnets, planning is underway for a vaquita capture effort to take place in October 2017 in the hopes that capture may provide the species with temporary or long-term sanctuary. 

Economics for conservation: vaquita protections require innovative solutions

In order to combat the primary threats to vaquita survival, participants of the recent meeting of the International Recovery Team for the Vaquita (CIRVA) recommended that policy, business, and economic experts identify and nurture the development of alternative economic livelihoods to ensure the viability of the communities adjacent to vaquita habitat. These activities could include modified fishing techniques with vaquita-friendly gear, enhanced market incentives for vaquita-friendly seafood, or the development of various tourism, aquaculture, and renewable energy initiatives. To address these recommendations, we recently joined researchers from Mexico and NOAA Fisheries to fund, organize, and host a special session at the North American Association of Fisheries Economists (NAAFE) meeting in Laz Paz, Mexico, where entrepreneurs and experts laid out options for alternative economic development. The ultimate goal of the meeting was to begin organizing an Economic Summit for the fall of 2017 focused on these efforts, including the formation of public-private partnerships capable of funding and launching these critical investments. This NAAFE special session provided an excellent opportunity to lay the groundwork for the Economic Summit to fight for the continued existence of the wild vaquita

NOAA researchers search for the vaquita during a recent population census.

The Commission renews its focus on public engagement
We have continued to broaden our reach through online and in-person public engagement in recent months. On February 21, we visited a second grade class at a local elementary school. We presented information on a wide variety of marine mammals, including the most endangered marine mammal on earth—the vaquita. By engaging the students with games and visual aids (like whale baleen), we hoped to foster an interest in marine science and environmental stewardship. We ended our presentation with a discussion on conscientious decision-making to empower students to think about their impact on the marine environment. We are planning more school trips to continue to educate the youth in our community while increasing our public engagement through regularly scheduled social media communications and even our Annual Meeting.