Dr Adriana Vella participates in the Annual European Cetacean Society Conference

The European Cetacean Society (ECS), has this year celebrated its 20 th Anniversary by dedicating its annual conference to coastal issues affecting marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales. As the scientific cetacean researcher of the Maltese Islands for the past ten years, Dr Adriana Vella, Ph.D. (Cantab.) participated and contributed an overview of issues that affect local cetaceans around Maltese coasts.

Issues of concern toward cetacean conservation

Coastal marine species, including coastal cetaceans, are facing multifaceted threats , such as: over harvesting of species; various sources of pollution; potential sources of harmful microorganisms introduced or enhanced through anthropogenic activities; habitat destruction; habitat fragmentation; natural reefs' exploitation and utilization; and introduction of alien species. Among the effects humans pose in coastal waters, one finds light and sound pollution too. In particular the Maltese Islands, due to its good harbours which are important maritime sites in the Mediterranean, have seen increasing vessel traffic posing not only increased chemical pollution, but also sound and light pollution. Recently power boat racing has been added to the list of boat activities, side by side with speed boats and ferry boats that invade all coastal waters around our islands, especially in summer. Through this long-term cetacean research project it is becoming possible to understand how local bottlenose dolphins have developed a coastal and boats evasive behaviour and preference for offshore areas during certain times of the day during peak summer months.

Ongoing Research around the Maltese Islands

The increasing threats are demanding eclectic research projects toward cetacean conservation. The Conservation Biology Research at the University of Malta has been active on long-term year round cetacean research in the Central Med., around the Maltese Islands, since 1997, side by side with various other marine projects that would allow a greater understanding of how coastal parameters affect marine life and cetaceans' lives.

The ongoing cetacean conservation research project run and coordinated by Dr. Vella has been possible with the assistance of the University of Malta, Malta Maritime Authority, BICREF members and various sponsors which have encouraged both research and local awareness by covering costs. Other entities cooperating in providing information include the AFM, local fishermen, sailing enthusiasts, birdlife watchers, Gozo ferry crews, and various other sea-users around the Maltese Islands, who contact Dr. Vella with sighting records.

Though Dr. Vella has undertaken scientific field surveys, for the past ten years, she has also worked on voluntary bases toward promoting local awareness on the needs of these organisms and other marine biodiversity that needs to be protected in tangible manner. “While so much is stated and printed with regard to sustainable development, the dangers and threats leading to decline of marine species in the Mediterranean and around the Maltese Islands prove that very little is still being done in practice to strive toward the 2010 target of “halting biodiversity loss” and making our natural environment capable of surviving for many generations to come. Dolphins and whales have stood as a flagship species toward such issues for many years now, but have been the first to be ignored when it comes to putting funds into conservation research and improved management.” states Dr. Vella.

Legal structure already in place assisting and posing national obligations:

Among the increasing international, regional and local legal structures developed in aid of vulnerable species' protection one finds: CITES, ACCOBAMS, Convention on Migratory species, Barcelona, and local legal notices. So as to make sure that law, policies and conservation of species really become linked, detailed and updated information would be needed to monitor how effective such laws are side by side with conservation management. The University Conservation Biology Research Projects have much to offer to such conservation monitoring and thus some funds for such applied fields should also be made available.

Why cetaceans are important indicators of the health of our seas?

Different cetacean species depend of different marine resources and habitats. Knowing how each species and respective populations are faring in our waters may give us a good indication of how our seas have either remained able to sustain life in its full complexity or have become impoverished and degraded leaving little space for those species it could once sustain.

The ECS conferences have long a long way toward encouraging cetacean researchers in exchanging experience, acquired knowledge and concerns. The last conference was preceded by interesting workshops. Dr. Vella also participated in two such workshops: on marine mammal age determination and the effects of climate change on cetaceans. The latter was very important toward pointing out that climate change may very well bring about new problems with perceived protection measures such as conservation areas, which may have been suitable for some time but may need to change position in the future. All this continues to point toward the need of ongoing research and wider consideration of conservation measures to keep pace with a changing natural environment.

Dr Adriana Vella, Ph.D. is a Senior lecturer and researcher at the Conservation Biology Research Group, Department of Biology, University of Malta. She is also the founder of the Biological Conservation Research Foundation (BICREF), an environmental NGO promoting scientific conservation research and awareness for effective long-term conservation action.

For further information visit:
ACCOBAMS webpage: http://www.accobams.org/
ECS webpage: http://www.ecs2006gdynia.univ.gda.pl/about.html
BICREF webpage: http://sites.keyworld.net/bicref/