Importance of long-term research



 

 

Cetaceans are long-lived animals with low reproductive rates. As such, conservation efforts require long-term studies spanning decades to understand how populations are doing in the wake of our rapidly changing world.

Since 1991, we have been collecting data annually to contribute to on-going studies of resident coastal bottlenose dolphins, Blainville’s beaked whales and sperm whales, and more recently West Indian manatees as well as more transient species like short-finned pilot whales. BMMRO dedicates six months of field work each year, collecting information on the individuals present in each group which allows us to track them over their lifetimes.

This on-going effort has resulted in an unprecedented longitudinal dataset for cetaceans in the region which is providing increasingly valuable information on the ecology and conservation of species both locally and globally.


Marine mammal conservation

 

 

Marine mammals in The Bahamas face many of the same threats from human activities as they do elsewhere in the world. These include ocean pollution including man-made noise and marine debris, habitat alteration and coastal development, impacts of over-fishing and entanglement in fishing gear, and vessel collisions.

All marine mammals are protected species in The Bahamas which provides the basis for developing conservation directives for local populations. The recent establishment of 15 new marine protected areas will advance the protection of marine mammal habitats in The Bahamas. BMMRO’s scientists continue to work closely with the Government of The Bahamas and local environmental groups as well as our regional counterparts to ensure that marine mammal conservation needs, both current and future, are addressed.

 

 
Conservation of local populations
 
 

 

Our on-going studies enable us to learn if local populations are stable or declining and what threats these populations face as their habitat continues to change because of human activities. Our studies of population trends and the effects of noise pollution address these conservation concerns. Our results suggest that in areas where human disturbance is greater, some local populations may be in trouble while others inhabiting more pristine environments appear to be doing well.

For example, bottlenose dolphins in the Sea of Abaco have declined by nearly 50% since the 1990’s which is likely the result of cumulative effects of development, over-fishing, and marine pollution as this area has experienced economic growth during the same time period. However, the dolphin population off Sandy Point, an area that hasn't experienced a lot of development, has remained stable over the same time period. Blainville’s beaked whales on the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) in Andros are regularly disturbed by sonar use during Navy tests and appear to have lower reproductive success and abundance compared to a nearby population in Abaco that is not disturbed. Our challenge now is to work with policy makers to lessen and where possible eliminate these impacts.

 
 
Marine mammal ecology studies
 
 

 

Ecology is the study of how animals function in their environment; what do they eat, what eats them, what habitats are important, how they behave, etc. An understanding of species’ ecological roles, especially top predators like marine mammals, is critical to marine conservation.

BMMRO’s observations of other non-resident species sighted in the Bahamas are more opportunistic in nature but have allowed us to amass some of the only information available about the ecology of marine mammals in the Wider Caribbean region.

Check out our publications to learn more about studies of ranging patterns, occurrence (biodiversity), communication, diving and foraging behaviour, and other research that we have contributed to over the years. Also have a look at our Guide to Marine Mammals to learn more about the ecology of species that occur regularly in The Bahamas.
 

 
Funding challenges of long-term research
 
 

 

Despite the importance of this work, it is often difficult to secure funding for long-term studies. Much of this work has been carried out through partnerships with universities and funding agencies, but funding cycles tend to be short. The truth is without the dedicated efforts of BMMRO’s scientists and volunteers over the past 25 years, these studies would have ended long ago. We are continually challenged to ensure this work continues by training young Bahamians to carry this effort forward into the future.

If you recognise the importance of this work, and wish to make a contribution to support its continuation, please contribute.

 

 
Featured highlights from the field
 
 

 

Watch a video to see how we did it!
 
 
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Are Abaco's Whales Stressed Out?

In a collaborative study with the New England Aquarium and funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, we set out to answer this question. The goal of this project was to develop faecal hormone assays to measure stress levels in two species of deep-diving whale that occur regularly on U.S. Navy ranges: Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). But we first wanted to field test the methods in Abaco.

Based from Sandy Point, we used small rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) to locate whales during summer months from 2011 – 2014. When whales were sighted, one or two swimmers would tow alongside the RHIB and when a whale pooped the swimmer would dive down and gather the faeces in a custom-made net. Once back onshore, each poop sample was centrifuged to remove the seawater and later shipped to the research lab at the New England Aquarium for analyses. In total, sixty-nine faecal samples were collected.

Hormone concentrations showed some expected patterns with varying sex and age–class providing evidence of the biological validity of this approach. The physiologic data generated by this project has provided baseline levels of stress and metabolic hormones in free-swimming beaked and sperm whales for comparison with conspecifics experiencing known acoustic disturbances, such as at the nearby U.S. Navy Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC).

Look for our upcoming publications about this work.