Marine mammals in the Wider Caribbean – Current research and priorities for future studies
Information on the distribution, abundance and ecology of marine mammal in the Wider Caribbean Region is scarce. This report aims at collating the on-going research in the Wider Caribbean Region, at identifying the most critical knowledge gaps that need to be addressed to inform and facilitate conservation actions and assess the most suitable research techniques to fill these knowledge gaps.
Numerous research activities aiming at marine mammals have been commenced by individual organisations as well as regional or even international collaborations throughout the Wider Caribbean over the past years. These efforts, ranging from visual to acoustic surveys, satellite telemetry, stranding response, and many more, provide valuable insight into important aspects of the ecology of marine mammals and show that the motivation and need to conduct research on marine mammals in the Caribbean waters is high. Due to lack of funds and capacity most current and past cetacean research in the region can be characterised as small-scale, low in sophistication, opportunistic, temporary and local which is a great limitation to the understanding required for proper conservation of this increasingly important resource in this tourism-oriented region. Consequently, if continued with the current level of capacity and expertise, the results will continue to remain limited. There is an urgent need to combine forces, work on a larger geographic scale and use new and innovative techniques if we want to move beyond the current patchwork in activities and understanding. Ideally, all on-going and suggested future research efforts should become integral parts of a joint international research strategy for the wider Caribbean.
The choice of research methods to be used, however, depends in large part on the questions to be answered. Knowledge on temporal and spatial scale of marine mammal occurrence in the Caribbean waters is essential for any effective management and conservation and should have first priority, followed by studies on the effect of anthropogenic activities on marine mammals. In the absence of adequate data on marine mammals in this region, but with cautious extrapolation of knowledge and experience gained in other parts of the world we suggest to concentrate research efforts on visual and acoustic surveys and monitoring, stranding networks and necropsy of stranded animals, along with photo ID and tissue sampling for genetic analysis. All these methods differ in terms of the aims for which they will be suitable. Therefore, the aims must be clear before choosing the method. Research on the diverse groups of marine mammals has to modular and collaborative such that it can be synergistic, provided that there is sufficient collaboration and communication between all parties involved.
Public outreach by involvement of local institutions, marine parks, tour operators as well as communication of any research plan and results to local, regional and international regulators, policy makers and public representatives, plays an equally important role in achieving management and conservation goals.
This report is part of the Wageningen University BO research program (BO-11-011.05-005) and has been financed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ) under project number 4308701020.