Interview: Rebecca Walker, Senior Marine Mammal Specialist

Interview: Rebecca Walker, Senior Marine Mammal Specialist

Posted by Esther Jacobs on September 25, 2018

Rebecca Walker, from the UK, is the Senior Marine Mammal Specialist for Natural England and has recently been conducting research in marine mammal disturbance. We were lucky to have Rebecca join us for a research trip, and took the opportunity to interview her about her career history.

How did you end up in your current role?

I originally studied environmental science at university, as I enjoyed geography and biology at school, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do as a career. It was during my third year of university, when looking for a project for my undergraduate dissertation, that I volunteered for a whale and dolphin project in the Canary Islands… and the path for the rest of my life was set! I absolutely fell in love with the marine environment and marine mammals in particular and was determined that I would try to pursue a career in the field. This decision led to more volunteering around the world to increase my skills (including the Centre for Dolphin Research, run by Vic Cockroft in Plettenberg Bay) and an MSc in marine science.

After my MSc I wasn’t sure what route to take; whether to look for a PhD or a job in conservation. However, before I’d even finished my MSc thesis, I was lucky enough to get a job with a marine environmental survey company. I had three great years working on offshore survey ships, undertaking baseline environmental surveys (camera and sampling surveys), as well as undertaking marine mammal observations and passive acoustic monitoring for marine mammals before oil and gas surveys. I then took a bit of a move away from marine mammals for several years, but gained excellent experience working for the UK Government (Cefas – the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) providing scientific and technical advice in relation to the impacts of human activities in the marine environment and gaining valuable knowledge of various marine industries (e.g. renewables). I kept up my marine mammal survey and research skills during this time by continuing to volunteer in my holidays and I continue to do so today, being a volunteer team leader for the cetacean conservation charity ORCA.

My friend actually sent me the job advert for the marine mammal post at Natural England (NE), otherwise I might have missed it altogether. Whilst I enjoyed my job at Cefas, a chance to focus on marine mammals was too good an opportunity to miss! I love the role at NE. It is very broad in focus, allowing me to get involved with all aspects of marine mammal advice, policy and conservation. I really feel like I am in a privileged position to be able to make a difference to how we protect and conserve marine mammals in the UK.

Of all the ocean animals, why are you interested in marine mammals around the UK coastline?

This is a hard question. I’m interested in the whole marine ecosystem and have a lot of time for everything from ocean dynamics to (of course!) sharks. I spent my life growing up watching David Attenborough documentaries, but as a young child, I always loved dolphins. This childhood love grew into a fascination of all marine mammal species, their intelligence, their ability to adapt to different marine environments, their differing behaviours and ways of communicating, and their complex social structures. It has led to a passion to protect and conserve them from the numerous threats caused by human activities, such as fishing, pollution, underwater noise and disturbance. Not many people realise the sheer diversity of marine life around the UK’s shores, so educating people about it, as well as doing my bit to protect our marine mammals, is really rewarding.

You were recently awarded a Churchill Fellowship for 2018 to research marine mammal disturbance in South Africa and Canada. What are your goals for the research?

My overall aim is to find out what works in both countries in terms of preventing or reducing marine mammal disturbance then bringing that learning back, and applying it in the UK. In terms of my approach, I wanted to take a top down (e.g. national policy) as well as a bottom up (e.g. local communities and education) approach in my discussions within both countries to ensure that knowledge feeds through into overall recommendations for the UK. As such, I’ve spoken to Government, regulators and scientific advisors to understand the legislation, permitting and enforcement processes. I’ve also spoken to whale watch operators and marine recreation businesses to understand more about wildlife watching associations, codes of conduct, training and the education that is provided to local people and tourists. Lastly, where possible I’ve spoken to researchers to discuss whether any management put in place has made a measureable difference to the marine mammals impacted in each country. While both countries obviously have different challenges to that being experienced in the UK, I’m hoping to draw some parallels and provide recommendations of what might help to reduce disturbance in the UK.

Is there a reason you chose South Africa for some of the aspects of your research?

Yes! South Africa has one of the best legislative frameworks for marine mammal watching in the world. Legislation was put in place in the late 1990s after consultation with leading cetacean researchers and is still just as relevant today. This legislation requires boat-based whale watch operators to have a permit to operate legally, just like for the shark cage diving industry. There are various criteria that need to be met to be allocated a permit, including detailing technical expertise and tourist education to be provided on board. In addition, each operation is required to have a registered and accredited tour guide. Vessels need to be certified for whale watching and have a VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) in place (essentially a GPS system allowing the location and speed of the vessel to be monitored).

If allocated a permit, there are also a number of conditions which must be met for the permit to be reissued. Relevant permit conditions include daily log sheets to be submitted, including data on animal location, species, number of animals and broad behaviour. Conditions also specify interactions with animals, detailing how close a permit holder can approach various species of whale, dolphin and seal; the maximum time of interaction; the boat speeds at various distances from animals; how to approach the animals, as well as restrictions on revisiting the same group of animals and a maximum number of vessels within a certain distance of animals.

There is a lot the UK can learn from this strict legislative framework, which is why I wanted to visit SA to talk to Government, operators, academics and NGOs (non-profit / non-governmental organisations) about their views on the system, what works (or doesn’t) and what they think can be improved.

What are the main differences between the UK and South Africa, as far as legislations to prevent disturbance to marine mammals?

The biggest difference is that the UK has no legislation or regulations specific to wildlife watching. We also do not have any permitting system for boat-based whale watching and as a consequence we have no idea how many operators we have, where they work, what species they target or even if they are trained. We do have voluntary codes of conduct in place and voluntary training (known as the WiSe scheme), but that is it. As more people visit the UK coast for their summer holidays, and as interest in the marine environment grows thanks to documentaries such as the BBC’s Blue Planet, there is an increasing desire to discover the diversity of wildlife we have around the UK. Don’t get me wrong, this is great! However reports of marine mammal disturbance are increasing year on year, so I feel there is a need to address this before it becomes any more of a problem and we start to impact some of our more vulnerable populations.

What are the main differences between these countries as far as the enforcement of their legislations?

I’ve discovered enforcement is a problem wherever you are in the world. It takes time and money, both of which are often in short supply. This will be a key issue for the UK in terms of implementing any recommendations from my travels. It is one thing to bring in regulations or permitting, but they need to be monitored, evaluated as well as enforced to be effective. Certain areas of the USA (North East Pacific) have enforcement officers on the water almost every day, ensuring regulations are adhered to. This would be a challenge in the UK, so alternative enforcement options need to be considered too.

Why is noise pollution a problem for our marine life?

Sound is the primary sense for marine mammals (and various other marine organisms). They use sound to navigate, communicate, find prey and avoid predators. Certain marine mammal species use sound to communicate over 1,000s of kilometres across oceans and scientists are still learning about the various complex ways sound is used by marine mammals. Manmade noise in the ocean has increased over the last 100 years from various activities including shipping, marine industry (e.g. wind farms, or oil and gas exploration) and recreational activities (e.g. boating, jet skiing or kayaking). Manmade noise can impact marine mammals in many different ways. Certain noises can mask their communication or ability to detect predators, while other sounds can disturb them from important feeding or resting areas (potentially leading to a decrease in long term health), or even cause injury or death. Loud underwater noise can temporarily or permanently reduce an animal’s hearing sensitivity, essentially causing them to become deaf at certain frequencies. Their hearing may recover, or it may not, with potential consequences on survival (e.g. it may impact their ability to find prey). Naval sonar has been shown to cause rapid behavioural changes in deep diving marine mammals, causing them to cease feeding, but also surface too quickly, leading to something akin to decompression sickness (the bends), and resulting in death.

What lasting impact do you hope your research will have?

Now I’ve returned to the UK, I’m planning on evaluating what I’ve learnt and looking at what might be possible to implement at a national and local level (would regulations, permitting, mandatory training, and/or local education and other local initiatives work?). Overall, by sharing what I learn with Government policy makers, regulators and other UK conservation agencies, I hope it will allow us to better manage and advise on wildlife watching and recreational boating issues. By working with local stakeholders, I hope I can collaboratively look at implementing my findings, and drive the benefits of responsible wildlife watching for the conservation of local marine mammal populations.


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