A Marine Mammal Odyssey!

Our Blog Editor, Dr Sarah Marley, reports back on last month’s Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) conference in Halifax, Canada.

Last month saw over 2,000 marine mammalogists travel to Halifax, Nova Scotia for the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals.  This year’s theme was “A Marine Mammal Odyssey, Eh!” and incorporated the Canadian flair that was a strong feature throughout the week.  From the Nova Scotian music at the welcoming reception to the poster sessions on an ice rink, this conference certainly made the most of its wonderful location.

This was my third time attending SMM and, like the previous two, it marked a career milestone.  SMM 2009 marked the completion of my Masters degree, whilst SMM 2013 corresponded with the commencement of my PhD.  Now, I headed to SMM 2017 only a couple of weeks after my PhD conferral to present the outcomes of that research, proudly clutching my “Dr” business cards.  And for me, this conference just keeps getting better and better.

Before it even kicked off, I attended a one-day workshop about density surface modelling.  Dr David Miller, an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling (CREEM) and School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, was one of the co-organisers.  “Before SMM started, collaborators from the University of St Andrews, Duke University and NOAA Fisheries held the first public and working group meetings for the a new density modelling project (DenMod) which begins January, funded by the US Navy for 4 years,” he described.  “The aim of the project is to improve spatial modelling of the abundance of cetaceans, providing new methodology and tools to practitioners, in particular for management and impact assessment.

For me, this workshop was the perfect intellectual appetizer before a week-long schedule jam-packed with a stunning array of talks and posters.  Given my research background, I could typically be found in the ‘acoustics’ or ‘behavioural ecology’ sessions.  But the variety of talks covered also included population biology, physiology, foraging ecology, conservation, genetics, and health.  One session I particularly enjoyed was devoted to ‘outreach and education’, which focused on ways to engage students and community members with different aspects of marine mammal science.  However, there were topics to suit everyone!  “I especially enjoyed the vast amount of talks on spatial ecology and habitat use, and the various approaches and modelling strategies that people had applied to their questions,” said Dr Milaja Nykänen, a post-doctoral researcher at University College Cork.

SMM 2017 was Dr Nykänen’s first time attending the SMM conference, and overall she described it as “Definitely a rewarding experience that stimulated me into looking at things differently and into finding new ways to answer biological questions.” For others, this year was a reminder of how amazing this conference series can be.  “It has been 15 years since I last attended an SMM meeting – I am confident it won’t be 15 years until the next,” said Dr Luke Rendell, Reader in Biology at the University of St Andrews.  “The quality of the science was extremely high, and the Society and the conference organisers were clearly committed to refreshing the conference content with innovative approaches to presenting and discussing work, such as short video-talks and poster pods. Beyond the science, I was struck at this conference more than many I have recently attended by the urgent and vocal commitment to addressing the diversity issues that are still a challenge for this field. It bodes well…

This diversity issue was raised during the first plenary talk, presented by Dr Asha de Vos of Oceanswell, and was a recurrent theme throughout many discussions at the conference.  Other plenary talks included discussions of marine mammals in the Anthropocene (Dr Scott Kraus, New England Aquarium), gene-culture coevolution in whales and dolphins (Professor Hal Whitehead, Dalhousie University), and advancing ecosystem-led approaches to managing aquatic predators (Dr Nigel Hussey, University of Windsor).  The conference also had three key presentations by winners of society awards, including Dr Randall Reeves and Dr Alexandros Karamanlidis, respective winners of the Kenneth S. Norris Lifetime Achievement Award and the Conservation Merit Award.  However, for me and many others, the show was stolen by Wood Award winner Dr Julie van der Hoop, with her talk on how the drag from fishing gear is a major extinction risk factor for entangled North Atlantic right whales.  “For me the highlight was Julie van der Hoop’s talk on entanglement, clearly presented science with great graphics,” agrees Dr Miller.

The conference also ran a series of lunchtime ‘conservation highlight’ seminars and panel discussions.  This event was of particular interest for Ms Leah Trigg, a PhD student with the Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre at Plymouth University.  “At times it was frustrating to hear again and again about human activities driving species to the brink and to learn how difficult it is to implement meaningful, timely and effective action,” she said. “However, it was heartening to be among so many participants concerned with working for solutions to these issues.

Ms Trigg described the conference as “a week full of potential, with fantastic opportunities to present my research and meet new experts from around the world.”  Other students agreed, also quoting the opportunity to network with other researchers as being a key component of this event.  “Attending SMM has been very beneficial for my career, as it allowed me to make connections with other researchers that I hopefully will have the opportunity to work with someday,” said Ms Carissa King, a recent Masters Graduate from the University of North Florida.  She added “I also greatly appreciated all of the career advice I received while I was at the conference and I learned a lot.”  Mr Tilen Genov, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews, also appreciated advice from his peers. “I was able to give a talk about my own research, in this case linking organochlorine contaminants to demographic parameters in wild bottlenose dolphins from the northern Adriatic Sea” he said. “I received some good feedback, and there were several discussions with colleagues that were both interesting and useful in terms of my research questions.  I think each such conference does in some way (sometimes indirect way) contribute to one’s career. You get to know interesting people, some of which you may have many things in common with, discuss ideas or joint approaches to problems.”  But, of course, it is not just about making new connections but also strengthening existing networks.  “The SMM 2017 was a second of the SMM conferences that I attended. I think it was a great networking opportunity and it was especially great to see all my friends and past working colleagues again,” said Ms Pina Gruden, a PhD students with the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton. She added “I was pleasantly surprised on how well the poster sessions were organised and I really enjoyed the workshops at the end of the conference.

These workshops followed an amazing (and in some cases extremely creative!) masquerade ball, both of which were undoubtedly a conference highlight.  I attended three across two days, the first being an all-day workshop on Women in Marine Mammal Science (WIMMS).  Dr Erin Ashe from the Oceans Initiative was a co-organiser.  “The workshop brought together a group of brilliant women in marine mammal science to share their perspectives, the challenges faced and overcome in our field, and practical guidance for women navigating challenges in this field,” she said.  “In particular, the personal stories shared by our speakers and panellists catalysed important discussion that continues beyond the workshop.  The topic is timely, especially given the recent reports of harassment and assault while conducting fieldwork, and a forum was needed.  Now, we have a dynamic, growing community of women organized around common aims.”  Stephanie Stack, Senior Research Biologist with the Pacific Whale Foundation, was one of the attendees and described the WIMMS workshop at one of her favourite aspects of the conference.  “I found it very encouraging and rewarding to hear that some of the challenges I had faced were, in fact, quite common and that others had faced these issues and overcome them,” she said.  “One sentiment that resonated with me was to stop considering successful women to be exceptional and expect that anyone can achieve a successful career. I was so inspired after this workshop and I really look forward to continuing my involvement in the WIMMS community.”  For me personally, this workshop was particularly well timed as I try to move into the next stage of my academic career.  Coming from an all-female household, I have always been aware of how capable women are; but it has only become recently apparent to me that this view is not shared by everyone.  So it was reassuring to hear the stories and experiences of other women in this field, across a range of career stages.

My second day of workshops was split between two bycatch events.  The first was organised by Dr Jeremy Kiszka of Florida International University and Dr Per Berggren of Newcastle University, and focused on low-cost mitigation methods for small cetaceans.  “Bycatch is the most significant direct threat to marine mammals globally. The Low cost bycatch mitigation methods Workshop identified several potential methods to mitigate bycatch in gillnet fisheries,” they said.  For me, it was an informative introduction to this topic and the extended discussions gave me plenty of ideas for merging my existing skills into this field.  The two are now preparing a workshop report and are hopeful that the event will have applied outcomes. “It further resulted in new global collaborations that will start testing these low cost mitigation methods,” they said.

The final workshop presented a new toolkit for assessing bycatch risk, and was organised by Professor Ellen Hines from San Francisco State University.  “The workshop ‘Catching the Right Fish’ presented a toolkit for the spatial analysis and display of bycatch risk, especially in areas with limited data.  At the workshop, we presented three case studies where we have been implementing the toolkit: Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam,” she said.  After presentations on the challenges and successes of these case studies, it was time for a practical component.  “In groups by region, attendees were able to work through some of the risk analysis steps, identifying risky gear use, data gaps and socio-economic factors that increase the risk of bycatch.  We identified next steps of gathering data from various regions of the world and increasing communication with fishermen.

The SMM biennial conference was, as always, an amazing experience.  In 2019, it will be joining forces with the European Cetacean Society (ECS) to form a mega-conference, the 2nd World Marine Mammal Science Conference.  I can’t wait to see which of my next career milestones it aligns with!


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