Cetacean Society International
Whales Alive! - Vol. XIII No. 2 - April 2004
Latin American Research
Is Latin American science at a crossroads? The 11th Reunion of South America Marine Mammal Specialists (11RT) and 5th Congress of The Latin American Society on Marine Mammals (SOLAMAC) will be held in Quito, Ecuador between 12-17 September 2004. The event will bring together hundreds of scientists and others from Latin America and beyond, to report the latest developments in marine mammal research, in sessions on anatomy and physiology, behavior, conservation and management, ecology, genetics, immunology and toxicology, population and distribution, and systematics and evolution. Details are available from CSI.
Some of the scientific and conservation projects that will be reported on have been supported by CSI, as we have done for over 20 years. Our commitment to help young scientists attend this very important event also continues as in years past. Over the years CSI's support has given us a unique witness to the maturation of hundreds of professionals and their craft, and perhaps now a glimpse of what may come. Several CSI grantees were honored for their 10th RT presentations at the Robin Best Award ceremony at the Society for Marine Mammalogy's Biennial Conference last December. Layla Osman was judged Best Overall Presentation, Ignacio Moreno won Best Oral Presentation, and Paula Costa's poster was given Honorable Mention. Beyond the quality of their science, their individual contributions to marine mammal conservation deserve even more praise.
CSI's justification to support scientific research ultimately is a search for the effective management of human impacts, particularly the incidental and directed killing of cetaceans by fishermen, and the effects of pollutants and toxins. Our support also goes to education and conservation, but those follow and use the facts only science can provide. Each project also is usually the beginning of a career, so we see our support very much an investment in people and the future, always a commitment to individuals with potential. As one example see Francisco Viddi's report later.
But we're becoming concerned for the future, not just because of human population growth and unstable economies, but because of the pressures being applied to change the conduct of future science in Latin America. Just a few years ago most research projects for graduate degrees were basic and benign studies of abundance, habitats, behaviors and, inevitably, human impacts. Most were accomplished with student subsidies, and at a small fraction of the cost of similar work in the US or EU. That's why a small investment by CSI could still make a difference.
Is it time for a change? Better funded projects in the US and EU had developed sophisticated techniques and expensive equipment, and selected Latin Americans have been exposed to courses, degrees, and conferences. But recently some Latin American scientists found themselves essentially being told to grow up, to get with it, to bring in the expensive and invasive equipment and get some modern work done. Because of economic realities and increasingly complex methods this can translate to hiring northern specialists and gadgets to do the work, and inadvertent or not, has opened some ethical questions about more Latin Americans working with invasive research.
Two proliferating examples of invasive research are genetic analysis and tagging. Both have provided a surge of useful information, but there is too little consideration of the ends justifying the means. Some dolphins have radio or satellite tags bolted to their dorsal fins, while some larger whales have tags implanted or attached by metal spikes. For some details of the controversy with tags see the Maui dolphin article in this newsletter. Beyond the "success" of having a working tag, does the cost to the animal matter?
From CSI's perspective as an animal welfare organization the evolution of science on the continent may have reached a critical point, specifically as many new scientists seek guidance on appropriate procedures, and established scientists may be lured to invasive research for its northern-based funding. Because more invasive research is inevitable in Latin America, CSI has urged the 11RT conference's organizers to hold an ethics workshop, focused to the issues that should be included in the continent's new research objectives. Ethics have been addressed in most recent marine mammal conferences. Latin America is due.