How poop could counter calls to resume commercial whaling

This post was first published by Scientific American in August. As such, it refers in the future tense to a meeting that took place back in September. You will find an update — and some good news — at the end of the story.

Before whales dive into the darkness of the deep ocean they often come to the surface and release a huge plume of faecal matter—which can be the colour of over-steeped green tea or a bright orange sunset. When Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, saw one of these spectacular dumps in the mid-1990s, he got to wondering: “Is it ecologically important? Or is it a fart in a hurricane?”

Roman and other researchers have since shown whale excrement provides key nutrients that fuel the marine food chain, and that it also contributes to the ocean carbon cycle. These important roles are now influencing scientific and economic arguments for protecting whales, at a time when calls for a resumption of whaling are growing.

“The scientific community is coming to understand a new value of whales: their role in maintaining healthy and productive oceans,” says Sue Fisher, a marine wildlife consultant at the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute. “We are beginning to see governments use this rationale to justify measures to protect whales.” But as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) prepares for its biennial meeting next month*, the ecological services whales provide are set to split the gathered countries—with an unknown outcome for the whales.

Fertilising the ocean

Whale poop’s importance is nothing to sniff at. In a 2010 study, Roman’s team found whale defecation brings 23,000 metric tons of nitrogen to the surface each year in the Gulf of Maine—more than all the rivers that empty into the gulf combined. This nitrogen fertilises the sea by sustaining microscopic plants that feed animal plankton, which in turn feeds fish and other animals including the whales themselves.

Studies have found similar effects elsewhere, and with other nutrients found in whale faeces. And when they migrate, whales also redistribute nutrients around the globe. By moving them from higher latitudes, Roman says, the giant mammals could be increasing productivity in some tropical waters by 15 percent.

By stimulating the growth of microscopic plants called phytoplankton, whale scat may also help limit climate change. These tiny aquatic plants remove carbon from the atmosphere and carry it deep into the ocean when they die. Research in the Southern Ocean showed that the iron defecated each year by the 12,000 resident sperm whales feeds phytoplankton that store in the deep ocean 240,000 more metric tons of carbon  than the whales exhale. This means that, on balance, whales help lock carbon away.

But today’s benefits are a fraction of what these animals provided prior to the era of commercial whaling, which devastated whale populations during the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2016, ecologist Chris Doughty of the University of Oxford and his colleagues estimated ocean animals’ capacity to move nutrients around has decreased to just 5 percent of historic values. The IWC—the global body with greatest say over the fate of these animals—is beginning to take note.

Paradigm shift

The IWC was set up in 1946 not to conserve whales but rather to ensure populations remained healthy enough for continued economic exploitation of their blubber and meat. It ultimately presided over decades of overexploitation, which saw the world’s whale numbers fall by 85 percent over the second half of the 20th century. In 1986, an IWC moratorium on commercial whaling entered into force, allowing many species to begin to recover.

For the next 30 years, the IWC focused on whether there were enough whales to sustain resumed hunting. But in 2016 it passed a paradigm-shifting resolution that recognized for the first time the central role whales and dolphins play in ocean ecosystems, specifically because their poop boosts productivity and could help limit climate change.

As a result, the IWC Scientific Committee is now tasked with considering the broader environmental effects of allowing whales to continue to recover. It is planning an expert workshop to review knowledge of the ecological functions whales and dolphins serve, and to develop a list of research priorities.

“The 2016 resolution put the IWC at the centre of an opportunity to reconsider whales; not just for their economic or social value—to be consumed or watched—but their global ecological contributions,” Fisher says. “In the future, when policy makers can factor in the value of the ecological services of the whales affected, they will be able to make a much more informed and holistic decision.”

Clash of ideals

The subject will be on the agenda again when the IWC meets in September in Brazil*. Representatives of the 88 member nations will consider adopting a new resolution, proposed by Chile, that would encourage governments to integrate the ecological value of whales and dolphins into local, regional and global decision-making on the environment—including climate change and conservation policies. Under another draft resolution, submitted by Brazil, the IWC would agree its mandate includes a responsibility to ensure whale numbers increase to precommercial hunting levels so that they may “fulfil their ecological and nutrient cycling roles.”

But Japan, which has led the push to resume commercial whaling, opposes these resolutions. Hideki Moronuki, a senior negotiator with Japan’s fisheries agency, says Chile’s proposal “is outside the competence of the IWC” and Brazil’s “is inconsistent with the objectives of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling,” the multilateral agreement under which the IWC was created.

The resolutions will face votes at the September meeting and will pass if a majority of IWC members agree. But some countries have not yet paid their annual membership dues and will lose the right to vote if the fees remain unpaid. With nearly half of the IWC members siding with Japan in recent years, the votes could be tight. The U.S. has not yet decided whether to support either resolution but “will seek to advance key conservation initiatives” and will “continue to support the moratorium on commercial whaling and will continue to oppose lethal research whaling,” says Scott Smullen, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some conservationists are excited that the resolutions are even being considered. “Seeing this move forward at the IWC is heartening,” says Astrid Fuchs, who heads the program to end whale hunting at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organisation. “The fact that whales play a significant role to maintain healthy oceans as ‘the oceans’ gardeners—as they sustain fish stocks and help combat climate change—is a powerful argument for their strict protection.” For Roman’s part, he says he is “thrilled” that the IWC is giving weight to his and others’ findings. “I hope,” he says, “this work will lead to better, more informed conservation efforts.”

*This post was first published (here) by Scientific American in August. When the IWC met in Brazil in September, a majority of its member nations voted to adopt the resolutions proposed by Chile and Brazil, and voted against a proposal by Japan that would allow a resumption of commerical whaling. Patrick Ramage, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called it “a big win for whales and a clear signal of intent.” He said: “The IWC has evolved from an old whalers’ club to a forward thinking conservation body.”

Photo credit: Humpback whale – Whit Welles / Wikimedia Commons

References:

Doughty, C.E. et al. 2016. Global nutrient transport in a world of giants. PNAS 113: 868-87 [Read online]

Lavery, T.J. et al. 2010. Iron defecation by sperm whales stimulates carbon export in the Southern Ocean. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences 277: 3527-3531 [Read online]

Roman, J. et al. 2016. Endangered Right Whales Enhance Primary Productivity in the Bay of Fundy. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0156553. [Read online]

Roman, J. et al. 2014. Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 377-385 [Read online]

International Whaling Commission. 2016. Resolution 2016-3. Resolution on Cetaceans and Their Contributions to Ecosystem Functioning. [Read online]

‘Evidence failure’ blights fight against illegal wildlife trade

rhino-seahorse

In Vietnam, enough people want to consume rhino horn — and are willing to pay enough for it — that smugglers risk jail to bring the product into the country, while poachers in Africa risk their lives to kill the rhinos for their horns. South Africa lost more than a thousand rhinos to poaching last year alone.

With consumption driving the illegal trade, efforts to reduce demand clearly have a big role to play in saving the rhinos. So, on the face of it, it was a good thing that in recent years several major conservation organisations launched initiatives to reduce demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.

But when researchers assessed nine of these interventions last year they found that only one — by TRAFFIC — had been adequately designed. Did the others have any effect? It is impossible to say. They lacked the elements needed to achieve and demonstrate impacts.

This is just one example of an ‘evidence failure’ that researchers say is thwarting efforts to stop the illegal trade in wild animals and plants, leading to inadequate, unethical and counterproductive policies and other interventions. The upshot is that conservation efforts risk failing to protect endangered species, harming vulnerable people and wasting vast sums of money.

Speakers at a conference in London on 9 October highlighted several factors at play, from misinformation and lobbying to poor uptake of evidence by policymakers and a basic lack of adequate information. They want to see a more scientific approach to designing, monitoring and evaluating interventions intended to prevent wildlife crime, deter illicit trade or reduce demand for wildlife products.

“Is there an evidence failure in this area? I think there probably is,” said Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “And that’s something we need to address. We really are struggling to provide the evidence we need to move forward.”

Dominic Jermey, Director-General of the Zoological Society of London, said the lack of evidence prevents policymakers from knowing whether, for instance, overseas aid budgets should finance conservation because conservation supports development goals, or whether is militarisation of conservation is effective. “It is hard to make the case without evidence,” he said. “The answer is more or less ‘we don’t know’ because the evidence base is not there”.

“Monitoring and evaluation of impacts is absolutely crucial so lessons can be shared, so successful interventions can be scaled up and unsuccessful ones can be revised for better outcomes,” said Jermey. But it appears that conservationists are not collecting and sharing enough evidence of what works and why.

Janine Robinson of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent presented data that showed the scale of the gap. She and her colleagues screened hundreds of publications for evidence of the impacts of wildlife trade policies and practices. They found only 42 articles published between 1970 and 2015 that had evaluated impacts and used a study design that reliably attributed outcomes to actions.

“Overall, there was a low volume of empirical evidence on the impact of international wildlife trade actions, indicating that more concerted and explicit research is needed on impacts,” says the report’s lead author Samantha Cheng of Arizona State University.

The conference heard how the evidence gap leads to a focus on big mammals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers and not on endangered fish, reptiles and plants that are trafficked in far greater volumes. Tens of millions of seahorses are illegally traded each year, for example, and several of their species are now threatened with extinction. Scott Roberton, Director for Counter-Wildlife Trafficking at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program, said priorities are being driven by subjective views, rather than data.

Such bias tends to focus attention on wildlife products from Africa and consumers in Asia. However, this ignores the growing importance of wildlife trafficking from Latin America and the rising roles of Europe as both a transit hub and a market for illicit products. There is also a disproportionate focus on tackling the supply side of the illegal trade. Boyd pointed out that, although demand drives the trade, only 6% of global funding spent between 2010 and 2016 to counter illegal wildlife trade had focused on reducing demand.

EJ Milner-Gulland — of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford— told me the likely consequences of failing to address the evidence gaps are “no action, inappropriately targeted action — by place or species — or inadequate action”.

Some change is on the way. In plans announced this month by the UK Government, the Oxford Martin Programme will join a consortium of researchers, conservationists and behaviour change specialists to develop evidence of how best to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products. Diogo Veríssimo, a researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme, says that because the consortium will bring together practitioners and academics it “has the potential to both improve technical standards and be meaningful in terms of impact on the ground.”

These efforts and more will be needed to make a dent on an illegal trade that is worth 23 billion dollars a year and involves a huge variety of species, from rhinos and seahorses to orchids and rosewood trees, from freshwater turtles and sungazer lizards to pangolins and helmeted hornbills. For many of these species, time is running out. That much is evident.

Follow the experts on Twitter

Ian Boyd (@DefraChiefScien); Dominic Jermey (@DomJermey); Janine Robinson (@JanineERob); Samantha Cheng (@pilesofsquid); Scott Roberton (@owstons‏); EJ Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland); Diogo Veríssimo (@verissimodiogo).

References

Cheng, S.H. et al. 2017. Mapping the evidence: Effectiveness of international wildlife trade practices and policies. Conservation International Working Paper. January 2017 [Read online]

Milner-Gulland, E.J. et al. 2018. Evidence to Action: Research to Address Illegal Wildlife Trade. Briefing note for policy-makers and practitioners. DOI:  10.31235/osf.io/35ndz [Read online]

Olmedo, A. et al. 2017. Evaluating the design of behavior change interventions: A case study of rhino horn in Vietnam. Conservation Letters. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12365 [Read online]

Veríssimo, D. & Wan, A.K.Y. 2018. Characterizing efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products. Conservation Biology. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13227 [Read online]

Photo credits

White rhinoceros — Karl Stromayer / Wikimedia Commons; Black-Sea seahorse — Florin Dumitrescu / Wikimedia Commons

Kill off the animals and you change the forest — fast

Last year I brought you the story of Lambir Hills National Park, a Bornean forest in which I used to live and work, where hunting and other pressures have forced into extinction much of the biggest wildlife species (see The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing).

It describes how recent surveys had failed to find 20 percent of the park’s resident bird species and 22 percent of its mammal species. The forest is emptying fast. The losses include half of the park’s primate species and six out of seven hornbill species —  all important dispersers of rainforest seeds. Sun bears and gibbons, bearded pigs and flying foxes all once called Lambir Hills home. Today it is hard to find an animal that weighs more than a kilogram in the national park.

Now researchers have shown what these extinctions mean for the forest itself. Rhett Harrison and colleagues tracked the fates of over 470,000 trees of more than 1,100 species for a 15-year period since intense hunting began there.

In a new study published in Ecology Letters, they have shown that the forest has changed markedly. There are far more trees now — the density of saplings increased by over 25 per cent between 1992 and 2008 — probably because there are fewer deer and other mammals to eat the young plants. But overall the diversity of trees has fallen. And compared to species that rely on gravity or wind to spread their seeds, there has been a relative decline in the number of new trees from species that depend on animals to disperse their seeds.

Species with animal-dispersed seeds — especially those with bigger seeds — are also more clustered than they were before hunting took off. This is probably because the loss of large fruit-eating animals means that seeds, on average, now travel shorter distances. There was no increase in clustering among species that need no animal assistance to spread their seeds.

The authors write: “Fruit that would formerly have been eaten by hornbills, gibbons or fruit pigeons, all of which are efficient long-distance seed dispersers, are now unlikely to be fed on by anything larger than a bulbul or a barbet”. For those of you who don’t know the birds of Borneo, members of the latter two types are both small enough to fit in a trouser pocket.

The researchers could draw their conclusions because Lambir is home to one of the world’s longest running forest studies. In 1992, scientists marked out a 52 hectare patch of the forest and then tagged, measured, mapped and identified every tree bigger than 1 cm diameter at breast height. In 1997, 2003 and 2008 they went back and repeated the exercise, each time taking several months to complete the task.

Their massive datasets, which track the identity and positions of around half a million trees every 5-6 years can animate the forest’s history. Like the photographs that form time-lapse videos, these periodic census snapshots reveal the patterns of life over time.  The next census of the 52-hectare plot, which is due to take place soon, will add a critical fifth image that further refines the picture of a forest in flux.

The results are already striking but, as the authors note: “the full impacts of defaunation at Lambir are only likely to be realised over several plant generations.” So far, none of the species that depends on big animals to disperse its seeds has gone extinct. That’s just a matter of time.

Reference:

Harrison, R. D. et al. 2013. Consequences of defaunation for a tropical tree community. Ecology Letters. Article first published online: 12 MAR 2013 DOI: 10.1111/ele.12102

The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

Boleh makan… Boleh… Boleh.” As I turned the pages of my copy of Mammals of Borneo to reveal more images of wildlife, Siba anak Aji said the same thing each time. “Can eat… Can… Can.”

It was 1998 and I was doing ecological research in Lambir Hills National Park in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Siba, my research assistant, was explaining which of the wild species his Iban community would consider eating. The list was long.

The only animal off the menu was the moonrat. Little wonder — this weird white creature, which is not a rat but a cousin of the hedgehog, stinks of ammonia. Everything else, said Siba, was fair game.

Hunting was of course banned in Lambir Hills and for Siba and many other members of his community the park was a source of jobs not meat.

But for others the forest was a larder. Continue reading