IUCN - A whale of a job

A whale of a job

28 July 2010 | News story

Marine mammals are fascinating and charismatic animals but many of them are seriously threatened, mostly due to commercial activities. Conserving these species requires specialized knowledge, solid resources, and determination. And all these elements are top priorities in Dr Randall Reeves’ work.

Dr Randall Reeves is a specialist in marine mammal biology and conservation, with a focus on whales, dolphins and porpoises. This has led him to some remote places. During the 1980s and 1990s he was involved in field research on bowhead whales in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and on right whales in the western North Atlantic. He has also conducted extensive research on river dolphins in Asia and South America, on narwhals and belugas, and on the history of whaling worldwide.

‘Like many other people, I was initially attracted to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) because of their so-called charisma. Part of the attraction though was, and remains, in the challenges posed by the endless complexity of human-cetacean interactions.’

 As chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean Specialist Group since 1996, Reeves has been responsible for preparing and evaluating assessments for the Red List of Threatened Species, drafting action plans for threatened species and populations, and advising governments and non-governmental organizations on a wide array of science and conservation issues.

‘‘There are three categories of challenges that I consider the biggest in my work.

The first one is purely scientific. For example, unless we really understand why a population of river dolphins is declining, there is a serious risk that we will squander precious conservation resources on the wrong thing and completely miss the true culprit. Understanding the drivers that are putting species and populations at risk is crucial, and all too often very difficult to achieve.

The second is philosophical. How can we get ourselves and others to care sufficiently about natural organisms and processes that we become willing to make fundamental changes in how we live? This is about values, and religious beliefs, and views of our role in the great scheme of things.

The third is practical or logistical, that is, how to harness the resources (money, time, personal relationships etc.) needed to function effectively as a conservationist with a credible, independent voice.’

Randall Reeves is currently involved in the Western Gray Whale Conservation Initiative, the overall objective of which is the conservation of the western gray whale population. He chairs IUCN’s Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel.

‘The western Pacific population of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) is one of two surviving populations of this species in the world. Although historically both populations were brought near to extinction by commercial whaling, the eastern Pacific population, which migrates annually between Mexico and Alaska, has recovered substantially and now numbers about 20,000 individuals. By comparison, the western Pacific population, or western gray whale, which is believed to migrate between eastern Russia and southern China, is estimated at about 135 individuals, including perhaps 30-35 reproductive females, and is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™’.

The few surviving animals face a number of threats, including collisions with ships, underwater noise, mortality in fishing gear and habitat modification. Particular concerns have been raised about the impacts of offshore oil and gas activities along the coast of Sakhalin Island, Eastern Russia.

‘‘To address this threat, IUCN has been working with Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (Sakhalin Energy) on issues associated with western gray whale conservation and is now developing a Rangewide Conservation Initiative, to expand the scope of conservation effort to cover the entire geographic range of this population’.

Randall Reeves currently works as a consultant and is based in Hudson, Quebec. He has a master’s degree in public policy from Princeton University and a doctorate in geography from McGill University. He has published numerous articles in scientific journals and co-authored or co-edited several books.

To learn more about the Western Gray Whale Conservation Initiative visit: http://www.iucn.org/wgwap/