Leitmotiv: questions first, then practicalities.

In October 2010, a team of scientists from Russia and the United States satellite tagged a western gray whale off Sakhalin Island, Russia. This is the first individual from the Critically Endangered western gray whale population to be tagged and tracked using telemetry. This whale, nicknamed Flex by researchers, was successfully tracked for over four months, revealing its long and unexpected migration route.

After Flex's success, other whales have been tagged and followed in 2011. Also Flex has been resighted on several occasions. He appeared to be in good body condition and, while scarred, the tag area has healed.
"This research was conducted by A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS) and Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute; in collaboration with the University of Washington, Sakhalin Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, and Kronotsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve. The research was contracted through the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with funding from Exxon Neftegas Ltd. and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd."

One of this year’s ECS workshops titled “Best Practices in Research: Tagging and Biopsy Sampling” addressed the techniques that use or cross the marine mammal skin, with no intention of being lethal, in order to sample biopsies or place tags on the animals to remotely access information such as behaviour, distribution, acoustics and genetics. The aim of the workshop was to discuss the procedure that implies possible damage or behavioural disruption to the tagged or biopsied individuals… but I can happily affirm the workshop went beyond.

The morning session, masterfully introduced and led by Peter Evans, saw a panel of experts in the field reviewing the different tagging and biopsying techniques currently in use in marine mammal research. These talks were specifically aiming at illustrating the methods used in several studies, highlighting the pros and cons of the different tools employed and suggesting possible ways of choosing the best one according to every project’s need. Indeed, lot of emphasis has been put on the importance of clearly defining the aim of the biopsy sampling itself: as researchers we always have to ask ourselves “What is the sample for? What am I looking at? Molecular genetics? Contaminants? Pollutants? Stable isotopes?” and then according to the answer we are able to deliver, choose the most appropriate and less disrupting methodology.

Simon Ingram investigated and compared the advantages and disadvantages of four different tools for sampling cetaceans and pinnipeds: crossbows, rifles, rubber band powered harpoons and swabs mounted on poles. The result? A very illuminating overview… however which  method to employ really depends on which species you are working on and again what are your questions. Well, and of course which is your budget!

I admit I have been pretty busy in noting down advice, ideas and recommendations I had not thought of! There has been room for questions and curiosities, and the experts favourably answered the audience’s thirst for knowledge. If you wish to read a good review about the cetacean biopsy techniques, have a look to this article.

In the afternoon the baton was handed on to Greg Donovan who, while presenting his telemetry study about the Western Grey Whale (see images) , stressed on the importance of the decision process which undoubtedly has to underlie every research project undertaken: clarify first which are the objectives of the project in order to better justify the use of a particular methodology. When invasive techniques are involved, maximum care needs to be taken in selecting the less risky methods!

Eventually the experts together with all the participants held a very interesting, confrontational and inspiring round table to seek a consensus for best practice recommendations to the ECS membership. These guidelines will be published on the ECS website and we will post the link here as well.. stay tuned!

Amina (HEPCA Team)

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