Scotland: Europe’s whale watcher 

Whales and dolphins are among the most loved and recognisable creatures on the planet. While research into their behaviour is well-developed, there is still a lot to learn about their lives below the waves and how human actions impact their world.

Diana Murray, Chair, Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)

Knowledge of marine mammal behaviours and distributions informs key policy areas, which include climate change, environment, biodiversity, conservation measures, marine protected areas, renewable energy, tourism, shipping, and fishing.

Through its research community, citizen science, NGOs, and wildlife charities, Scotland has created a combined expertise in marine mammal research and monitoring that would be the envy of many larger nations. Collaborative efforts are beginning to form which bring together local knowledge and cutting-edge scientific discovery, complemented by exciting new uses of artificial intelligence.

In April, the Scottish Association of Marine Science, Scotland’s largest and oldest independent marine research organisation, collaborated with the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) to present an evening dedicated to understanding the world of marine mammals and the steps we can take to help their survival.

By holding this event with the RSE, the aim was to raise awareness of the science and the actions that can be taken to make a big difference to the lives of these creatures.

Exploring the depths of Scottish expertise in long-term acoustic marine mammal monitoring, Dr Denise Risch from SAMS highlighted the importance of this work for policy development and the rapid advancements in the field brought about by new technologies such as AI. She discussed ongoing research collaborations in Scotland, noting our strengths and identifying areas where challenges remain.

Outlining Scotland’s place in global marine mammal research, Professor Peter Tyack FRSE from the University of St Andrews referenced ongoing international initiatives such as the International Quiet Oceans Experiment. His research demonstrated the significant disturbance to whale behaviour caused by underwater human-made noise from sources like naval vessel sonar, ship turbines, underwater drilling, and pile driving. He emphasised the success of international collaborations, particularly pan-European efforts, and explained how Scotland’s world-class expertise has directly impacted policy, such as in protecting breeding grounds from excessive noise.

Alison Lomax | Ian Georgeson photography 2024

Alison Lomax from the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust highlighted the power of citizen science in maintaining continuous monitoring for over 40 years, getting to know the populations of whales and dolphins on the west coast and providing large data sets, where Scotland is a European leader. The Trust also engages 20,000 people a year through its education programme. Alison emphasised that the need for greater knowledge is both a societal and research requirement, providing examples of how this data is collated, organised, and used to inform policy.

Susannah Calderan | Ian Georgeson photography 2024

Finally, Susannah Calderan from SAMS reported on collaborative efforts between scientists, NGOs, and commercial fishing to reduce the entanglement of whales and dolphins using knowledge of animal behaviour as well as testing simple adaptations to fishing tackle, ropes, and creels. Solutions to difficult conservation issues, such as marine mammal and fisheries interactions, are possible and could be implemented more widely with adequate support and investment.

Scotland’s dedication to understanding and protecting marine mammals – showcased through this exciting partnership event – demonstrates a remarkable blend of scientific expertise, community engagement, and collaborative efforts. With ongoing research, innovative technologies, and a commitment to conservation, Scotland stands as a beacon of progress in safeguarding the welfare of these beloved creatures and their oceanic habitats.

Diana Murray CBE FRSE, chair of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) board of trustees.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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