We chat to Rebecca Walker, ORCA Surveyor and marine mammal specialist at Natural England, about the prestigious fellowship she has won with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust
Tell us a little about yourself and your work
I work for Natural England as their marine mammal specialist. My job entails many aspects of marine mammal work, from helping to designate protected areas, such as the candidate Special Areas of Conservation (cSACs) for harbour porpoise, which were submitted to Europe in 2017, to providing advice to the Government on the environmental impacts of offshore wind farms. I’m also involved in commissioning research to fill (the many!) evidence gaps on marine mammals and in internal training to increase our marine mammal capacity. I love the fact my job is so varied and I can get involved in so many different aspects of marine mammal conservation!
How long have you been volunteering for ORCA and what inspires you to support the charity?
I’ve been volunteering for ORCA for probably nearly 15 years. My job, although amazing, is a desk job, and volunteering for ORCA allows me to get on a survey and see the animals I’m trying to protect! What I love about ORCA is the chance to inspire other people about marine mammals. I love working on the SAGA cruises and Sea Safaris, telling people all about the marine mammals they could spot, and the threats they face. Having the privilege of showing someone their first ever dolphin or whale is just the most amazing feeling! I also support the charity because they do so much to protect our whales and dolphins and the data that is collected is hugely important in increasing our understanding of our UK (and European) marine mammals.
What is involved in the Churchill Fellowship and what are you doing as a part of your project?
The Churchill Fellowship will allow me to travel to South Africa and Canada during June and August 2018 to investigate how both countries deal with marine mammal disturbance from commercial wildlife watching vessels and from recreational activities (such as kayaking).
Cetacean and seal watching, both commercial and recreational, is known to cause a range of disturbance reactions including avoidance, changes in behaviour, increased respiration rates, or an increase in vigilance. Such reactions can lead to short term reductions in fitness, such as a decrease in foraging rates or an increase in flushing rates from haul out sites, potentially leading to a decrease in the long term health of the animal, abandonment of pups or a decline in abundance.
Commercial marine mammal watching is growing in popularity in the UK, and the rise in recreational activities occurring around the UK coastline means incidences of disturbance appear to be increasing. There are no specific legislation, regulation or licence requirements for commercial wildlife watching operations or recreational activities in England (aside from general protection from disturbance provided within EU Habitats Directive legislation), and only voluntary guidelines or codes of conduct exist.
The aims of my Fellowship are to gather best practice knowledge of how other countries deal with commercial whale watching and recreational activities, from a national perspective (legislation, regulations and enforcement) and a local/regional perspective (whale watch associations, guidelines/codes of conduct, training and education). I aim to visit regulators, advisors, whale watching operators and research groups to learn how their legislation/permitting and codes of conduct evolved, how they deal with non-compliance and enforcement and whether it has made a difference to their marine mammal populations. Once back in the UK, I will evaluate how both countries arrived at their current position in terms of addressing marine mammal disturbance and look at what may be possible to implement at a national and a local level. At a national level, she hopes to explore whether overarching guidelines, mandatory training and permitting could work in the UK. At a local level, we are interested in working with local stakeholders to reduce marine mammal disturbance through education and other solutions already used in either Canada or South Africa.
I’ll also be presenting a poster at this years European Cetacean Society conference about the disturbance issue.
What are you hoping your work will help us understand?
I’m really hoping to learn from organisations in both South Africa and Canada about legislation and permitting, compliance with regulations and guidelines, issues and solutions to disturbance from recreational activities, the role of education and whether measurable differences have been made to the marine mammal populations affected. Once back in the UK, I will evaluate how both countries arrived at their current position in terms of addressing marine mammal disturbance and look at what may be possible to implement at a national and a local level. At a national level, I hope to explore whether overarching guidelines (only Scotland have these at the current time), mandatory training and permitting could work in the UK. At a local level, I’m interested in working with local stakeholders to reduce marine mammal disturbance through education and other solutions already used in either Canada or South Africa.
To find out more about the Winston Churchill Memorial Fund, visit their website at https://www.wcmt.org.uk/