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Major survey of whales, dolphins and porpoises

Ships and aircraft will take to European waters next month as part of the largest ever international survey of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Coordinated by the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews, seven ships and three aircraft will conduct an intensive survey of the European Atlantic continental shelf to map the distribution and estimate the abundance of whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, living in these waters.

The survey, involving researchers from throughout western Europe, is part of the SCANS-II project (Small Cetaceans of the European Atlantic and North Sea), supported by the European Commission LIFE Nature programme and 12 European governments.

The numbers are needed to assess the sustainability, or otherwise, of the numbers of cetaceans killed incidentally in fishing gear (know as bycatch), a particular problem for the harbour porpoise in European continental shelf waters.

Other aims of SCANS-II are to develop cost-effective monitoring methods for cetaceans in these waters and to develop a management framework for assessing the impact of bycatch and determining safe bycatch limits.

The survey will determine the numbers of the different species of cetaceans in European Atlantic waters, which will be compared with numbers obtained from a similar survey (called SCANS) conducted in 1994, also with LIFE Nature and European government support and also coordinated by the SMRU.

Dr Kelly Macleod, who will be onboard one of the ships surveying west of UK said, “This is an extremely important survey to assess the sizes of populations in European waters. Never has there been such a large scale survey in these waters – it’s a huge undertaking. The information is crucial in assessing the impact of bycatch on porpoises and dolphins”.

The results will be presented to the European Commission and participating governments in 2006. The aim is for the new information to help minimise the impact of cetacean bycatch in European waters and ensure that populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises remain in a healthy state.

The surveys will use line transect sampling methods, which use data on sighted animals and the amount of time spent searching for them to estimate abundance.

Conventional line transect methods assume that all animals directly on the transect line are detected. Because cetaceans may be underwater when the ship or aircraft passes by, this assumption is violated.

Consequently the team use enhanced methods to collect data that allow this problem to be overcome. These enhanced methods also allow any movement of animals in response to the survey ships to be accounted for.

In addition, each ship has acoustic equipment that will record the sounds made by some cetacean species. The sounds are picked up by a hydrophone towed 200 metres behind the vessel and relayed to computers onboard. These data will be compared with the sightings data to assess the value of using acoustic data for monitoring purposes.

Each ship has eight cetacean observers and each aircraft has three observers. The scientists are of many nationalities – one of the aims of the survey is to generate a European pool of experienced observers for future cetacean surveys. The ships will also carry seabird observers, who will record data on cetaceans for comparison with the survey data. After the survey, it will take many months to process and analyse all the data. Results are expected in the middle of next year.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS

For more information, please contact Philip Hammond, Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews – telephone 01334 463222 or email psh2@st-andrews.ac.uk Website – http://biology.st- andrews.ac.uk/scans2/

Survey vessels will be towing hydrophones developed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and running the IFAW system to monitor acoustically for harbour porpoises. SCANS-II survey will also use the ‘Logger’ computerised data entry system and photographic techniques (to measure angles and distances to animals sighted during the survey), which have all been developed by IFAW with the aim of improving the efficiency and accuracy of data collected during cetacean surveys. For more information, please contact Clare Sterling, IFAW press office – telephone 0207 587 6708.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk; Ref: press releases/scans.doc View the latest University news at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk

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